Will Anderson: The Green House

Organic hemp clothes are better than cotton, which uses 25 per cent of all the crop insecticides
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The Independent Online

Organic food is good for you and good for the environment. Good for you because it is free from pesticides and usually tastes better. Good for the environment because organic farming sustains biodiversity rather than wiping it out and encourages long-term soil health without the need for energy-intensive fertilisers.

If you buy organic food, and you do so because you care about the planet's health as well as your own, do you apply the same logic when you are out shopping for clothes? If you have asked a shop assistant to point you in the direction of the organic tomatoes, have you ever made the same request for organic cotton?

If not, I don't blame you. Buying clothes is, after all, a whole lot more troublesome than buying vegetables, and it can be vexing enough finding something you like at the best of times. Furthermore, organic cotton cannot boast the win-win of organic food.

Although some argue that chemically treated cotton can adversely affect the skin, this is a minority experience in practice. So, if you are going to make the effort to buy clothes made from organic cotton or other low-impact materials, sharpen up your altruism and try to look beyond the racks of beguiling garments to the very serious impacts of modern cotton production.

Across the world, cotton-growing uses 25 per cent of all the insecticides applied to agricultural crops and 11 per cent of all pesticides.

The adverse effects of all these chemicals, many of which are banned in the West, include human and animal poisoning, water pollution, pest resistance, declining soil fertility and loss of beneficial plants and insects that support the ecosystem (for more information and a directory of organic cotton retailers contact the Pesticides Action Network, www.pan-uk.org).

Put this raw material into a manufacturing industry still characterised by non-unionised sweatshops and those bright white high-street bargains begin to look very stained indeed.

Happily, the organic cotton market has been expanding rapidly, hand-in-hand with concern for fair trade. Organic cotton clothes can now be bought in many high street stores as well as through specialist shops and online retailers (see websites of the week). The range may be meagre compared with the overall stock but, at the very least, always ask - supply will only grow if the demand is first expressed.

Hemp is also making a comeback after many years in the drugged-up wilderness. The plant, which makes excellent fibre for clothes and shoes, is very robust and so can be grown in temperate climates without any pesticides. This is also true of bamboo fibre which is just emerging on the market (and wonderfully soft it is too).

Finally, there is always the number one eco-option of buying second-hand: you can then wear any material you like in the knowledge that no new resources were required for its sale. Traid is my favourite retailer ( www.traid.org.uk), funding international development projects through the sale of high quality second-hand clothes. The expert second-hand clothes shopper also enjoys the sheer smugness of finding perfect designer clothes for a tenth of the boutique price.

Put all these options together and I reckon there's still plenty of choice for all but the most pernickety fashion victim. If you want to make clothes shopping more interesting, make it that bit more difficult. You might find that you prefer it.

* GREAT BUY

Hemp skirt: £69 from Clothworks (01225 309218, www.clothworks.co.uk). For hips, not hippies.

* WEBSITE OF THE WEEK

There are lots of online retailers selling organic cotton and hemp clothes. For starters, try www.bishopstontrading.co.uk for the best possible provenance, www.seasaltshop.co.uk for bright colours, www.ptree.co.uk for fashionable activism, www.thtc.co.uk for streetwise hemp, and www.greenfibres.com or www.the-green-apple.co.uk for all the basics.

w.anderson@independent.co.uk

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