When La Rhea Pepper steps onto the 3,000-acre organic cotton farm in Lubbock, TX, that she and her husband, Terry, co-owned and managed for over a decade, she can practically feel him standing next to her.
Terry died 12 years ago, at 50, from a rare brain tumor - an illness La Rhea thinks was related to a childhood spent on a farm that relied on synthetic pesticides. Experts now know that toxic chemicals from weed and insect killers can seep into the soil, drift in the air, and collect in streams and rivers - to the detriment of plants, animals, and people nearby.
Terry’s father, Leslie, died prematurely too - from leukemia, a disease also linked to exposure to pesticides and other toxins. "There are so many widows in this area," says La Rhea.
The Peppers had always prided themselves on being natural farmers - their farm was certified as organic in 1991, shortly after the USDA set the standards for that label -
and they made a good living supplying organic cotton to textile manufacturers. But after Terry passed away, promoting organic farming became La Rhea's mission. "The industry should do nothing less than stop using those chemicals," she says.
La Rhea passed down the Pepper share of the farm to Terry's younger brother, Carl, then moved to Lander, WY, and became managing director of Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit she and Terry helped start in 2002 under the name Organic Exchange. The organization helps fight against practices of the clothing industry that have turned it into one of the most polluting industries in the world. According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the fashion industry generates 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse emissions every year, more than the amount created by international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Why Fast Fashion Is to Blame
The biggest cause of damage to the environment from the industry is the relatively recent rise of "fast fashion" brands that churn out cheap new collections multiple times a year, rarely using organic fibers. From the chemicals and water heaped on genetically modified cotton and other seeds to the energy needed to ship clothes halfway around the world, the environment bears the brunt of the damage created by the staggering pace and volume
of these companies’ clothing production.
On the consumer side, the ability to buy cheap jeans and shirts has made customers feel as if clothing is disposable, which has contributed to a 400% increase in textile consumption over the past 20 years. The average woman now throws away 82 pounds of clothing each year. Overall, one garbage truck's worth of textiles is dumped or incinerated every second.
Unfortunately, high-quality clothing and other textiles made from organic fibers are often more expensive than those made with conventional materials. That's a challenge La Rhea acknowledges, but she encourages a different perspective. "I think of towels, sheets, or clothes the way I think of food," she says. "When it comes to my health and the environment, some things are worth spending more on."
That's why La Rhea and Textile Exchange are working to reduce the cycle of fast fashion by educating farmers, manufacturers, textile suppliers, and brands about sustainable farming and organic fibers. "It's about creating awareness and understanding that your decisions impact people's lives," she says.
There Are Other Ways to Help
One way to get your fix of trendy new items in a sustainable way is to rent them. That's what Jennifer Hyman realized when she cofounded Rent the Runway in November 2009. While the company started as a way to rent designer dresses for weddings and other events, it now features options for renting an entire wardrobe. "We all buy tons of pieces we don't wear," says Jennifer. "By having a 'shared closet,' there are more people using each item of clothing, so it's more sustainable." Rent the Runway plans start at $89 per month (after a $69 trial month) for four designer items at a time.
Rent the Runway focuses on sustainability in other ways too. The company recycles all its plastic bags and hangers, dry-cleans its clothing with a nonhazardous chemical, and has patented its own eco-friendly garment bag. "We've saved more than 6 million pounds of waste with the garment bags alone," says Jennifer. "Small changes make huge differences."
Another way to reuse and recycle clothes is by participating in a clothing-swap party. Suzanne Agasi, a real estate agent based in San Francisco, founded Clothing Swap in 1995. What started as just a few women trading clothing, shoes, and accessories in her apartment turned into ticketed events across the country with spa treatments, cocktails, and refreshments. The largest one had 300 attendees. "Women of all ages, shapes, and styles can find pieces they love," says Suzanne. "And since women reportedly wear 20% of their clothing 80% of the time, it's not unusual to find items with price tags still on them." Plus, all Clothing Swap leftovers are donated to charities that will use the clothing.
A Reason to Be Optimistic
Back in Lubbock, La Rhea often visits the Pepper farm, where Carl's grown daughters, Kayla and Kara, pitch in along with La Rhea and Terry’s adult sons, Lee and Talin. "It’s exciting to see the next generation carrying the torch," she says.
She's also optimistic about global organic cotton production, which increased 8% from 2016 to 2017. Last year, Textile Exchange announced that 36 major brands, including Adidas, Timberland, and Levi’s, had signed a pledge committing to using 100% sustainable cotton by 2025.
"It's so rewarding to see the number of brands joining the cause," says La Rhea. "But we have a long, long way to go."
This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Woman's Day.
('You Might Also Like',)