While working in international public health Vinita Baravkar travelled to agricultural regions in India and Bangladesh.
What she saw triggered a turning point in her career.
Cotton was the dominant crop and the reality of how it was farmed and processed deeply disturbed her.
“I witnessed pesticide poisoning, toxic soils and farmer suicides,” Vinita says. “Women walked bare feet in the fields soaking up the pesticides and I wondered what that did to their bloodstream.
“Peoples’ arms were dyed from hands to elbows; there were stillbirths and children with deformities.
“It was such an eye opening experience. The pattern was the same in every village and I wondered what was going on. I was seeing things that we didn’t hear about.”
What she was seeing were some of the human faces of the 77 million cotton workers around the world who suffer from pesticide poisoning each year.
“The soils of GM cotton are so toxic you couldn’t grow anything else in them – a spin off into why there are a lot of farmer suicides across agricultural belts.”
Vinita threw her life into organic cotton, meeting growers, processors, manufacturers and those behind the certified organic cotton movement in Europe and the United States.
When she returned home to Australia, she started a business that would make everyday organic cotton products available.
The Bhumi Organic Cotton shop opened in Prahran, Melbourne, stocking sustainable clothes and bedding complete with all the certifications under the sun to prove their environmental cred and fairness.
What makes organic cotton different?
Certified organic cotton products are made from crops grown without GMOs and synthetic herbicides and pesticides.
They are also processed without harmful dyes so while you will see a splash of red amongst the items in Bhumi, most are neutral, subtle tones. Organic standards also stipulate worker conditions.
Vinita says the significant growth of GM cotton (commonly called Bt cotton) has resulted in many farmers losing control of their crops, forcing them to buy seed each season from suppliers Monsanto, rather than use their own.
Monsanto controls 95 per cent of the cottonseed market in India.
GM cotton has been developed to be poisonous to certain pests; however many farmers end up using the same amount of pesticide to control a population increase in other pests.
The other upside to growing cotton organically is that farmers can rotate their crops with vegetables in the off-season because the soils aren’t contaminated.
Vinita says, “The soils of GM cotton are so toxic you couldn’t grow anything else in them – a spin off into why there are a lot of farmer suicides across agricultural belts.”
It’s a logo fest
The shop’s glass front doors are decorated with Australian Certified Organic, Global Organic Textile Standard and the Soil Association logos. Each are slightly different.
The Australian Certified Organic logo is there because Bhumi is a certified organic retailer. For a textile store, retail certification means no harmful chemicals are used for cleaning or pest control.
They’ve taken the extra step of using lime-based paints and making the shelves from recycled timber pallets that have been heat-treated.
Vinita has an ingenious method of pest control. She has suspended 100 glass pots of cloves from the ceiling – the smell is enough to deter insects that like to munch on cotton. Give cloves a go in your home.
Special textile certification
The Global Organic Textile Standard logo features on all items. The internationally recognised scheme is just for textiles.
The Soil Association is the UK’s largest organic certifier and is one of the most respected in the world.
Its logo is on Bhumi’s doors because it approves the clothes and bedding to the Global Organic Textile Standard (which relies on certifiers to inspect companies on its behalf).
The products are also made from farms and mills that have Fairtrade accreditation.
Fairtrade has far more rigorous expectations around wages and conditions than organic accreditations.
They prove it’s okay
“Certification is absolutely key,” says Vinita. “Without it you can say it’s natural cotton or even organic cotton; which might be true about how it’s grown but then it could be treated with toxic dyes.”
Certification is also important for marketing. As a certified organic retailer Bhumi can use the Australian Certified Organic logo throughout the store – including the front door.
Vinita is now looking forward to branching out into other exciting design developments, launching a lace range shortly.
In the words of someone she likes to quote, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinita is definitely being “the change you wish to see in the world.”
Extracts of this article first appeared in Australian Organic News.