Each year Ode honors the top organic companies and products that are helping to make the world a cleaner, more sustainable and healthier place. Our November cover story (“Everyday toxins“) looked at the thousands of chemicals that enter our bodies every day as a result of our food, cosmetics, clothing and appliances. We also announced the Organic Top 40, a list of friendly products that don’t pose chemical threats to our bodies. Our readers then voted on which of them should claim top honors. They chose Imps&Elfs as the top organic company of the year for its fun, hip clothes–which, as a bonus, are produced under fair-labour conditions.
One hundred percent cotton. It’s proudly featured on the tags of many garments. It sounds natural—even environmentally friendly. But those who’ve had a glimpse of cotton production know better. Because the cotton plant is susceptible to disease and pests, it’s usually doused with a potent mix of agricultural chemicals. Some of these poisons are carcinogenic; others have been linked to headaches, dizziness, lung infections, asthma, depression and birth defects.
Many of these chemicals have been banned in the West but continue to be used in countries like India, where a substantial cotton industry helps drive the economy. The side effects are supposed to be listed on the chemical products’ labels, but many farmers in developing countries cannot read. And the protective clothing they ought to be wearing while they spray these chemicals is uncomfortable in the sweltering sun. Besides, no one’s checking.
And then there were the cotton farmers in Maharashtra region of India, who ran themselves deep into debt to buy agricultural chemicals but then faced disappointing harvests and could no longer support their families. A wave of suicides swept through the region as these desperate cotton farmers drank their poisonous chemicals.
So much for the myth of cotton as a natural product.
“Once you know about this, it’s only logical that you’d do anything to prevent it,” says clothing designer Jacqueline Streng. She knows about it—and chooses to work only with organic cotton. Streng designs colourful, innovative babies’ and children’s clothes for the Amsterdam-based brand Imps&Elfs.
Streng is the creative half of the Imps&Elfs’ leadership team, sharing the responsibility with co-founder Fons Cohen. In the 1990s, Cohen worked for well-known clothing brands and store chains in Hong Kong. The production numbers were huge, the prices low. His daily credo was: Make a lot for a little. One day, he says, he’d “just had it.” In 1997, Cohen and Streng launched the Imps&Elfs brand. Their way of doing business is just the opposite: small numbers, big prices.
The clothing is for sale in 150 stores in the Netherlands, and this year they’re considering opening their first shop in Amsterdam. The overseas market, though, is responsible for more than half of sales for Imps&Elfs, which will produce about 350,000 garments this year. The brand has representatives and sales outlets in 12 countries, including France, Italy, Japan and the United States.
We sat down recently to talk with the founders of the company Ode readers picked as the top organic brand.
Why do so many people still believe cotton is a natural fiber?
Jacqueline Streng: “Misinformation is everywhere.”
Fons Cohen: “It’s true that cotton isn’t all that natural. There are indications that when the agricultural chemicals used in cotton production come into contact with sweat, they can irritate the skin. And yet cotton is a pleasant fabric; it feels nicer on the skin than synthetics. In adult fashion, synthetic fabrics are its competition, but with babies’ and children’s clothing there’s hardly any demand for materials other than cotton. And of course organic cotton is a pure product, for the environment and also for your skin.”
Imps&Elfs makes colourful clothing. Don’t polluting dyes and inks cancel out the advantages of organic cotton?
Streng: “Yes, the dyes and the prints we use contain toxins. There simply aren’t any high-quality natural alternatives. Natural pastel shades are available, but we want color. We’re spoiled.”
Cohen: “Undyed clothing is boring. But we use dyes that have the lowest possible impact on the environment.”
How do you view the labour conditions in the clothing industry?
Streng: “Tragic! Every brand skimps on labour costs, so you’ve got overcrowded, unlit factories; child labour; bad sleeping accommodations for the cotton pickers—the list goes on. It’s a miserable existence for the workers.”
Cohen: “It’s not that straightforward. When you get to know those countries a little better, you can see those circumstances in context. You can’t bring everything up all at once to the level we’re used to. Imps&Elfs only works with factories that have an SA8000 certificate, which guarantees employees certain basic rights, such as the right to an independent trade union and safe conditions, and forbids child labour and sex discrimination.”
Is it difficult to make socially responsible choices in the day-to-day running of the business?
Streng: “It’s not always easy, and that’s logical. There are different interests. The production department wants the smoothest possible production process, the salespeople want to sell as much as they can. Those interests do sometimes clash with our ecological and social principles. Also, everything always has to get cheaper. Production has to economize; customers want to pay less. You’re constantly running up against that. That’s how it is running a responsible company day to day.”
Cohen: “And yet I also see those choices as a selling point. I believe consumer awareness is changing. I see babies’ and children’s clothing as a good vehicle for informing people about organic materials and responsible production.”
Are parents more concerned than other consumers?
Cohen: “When you’ve just brought a child into the world, you’re occupied with that new life in a very focused, conscious way. What kind of world is that child going to grow up in? When I lived in Hong Kong, I wasn’t so socially motivated. But when I became a father, that changed. It’s not a coincidence that Imps&Elfs was born the same year as my eldest daughter.”