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As I write this, I’m on the Sea Shepherd vessel, the Steve Irwin, heading up the east coast of Australia. We’re part of the Reef Defence campaign fighting to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the damage that would be caused by the massive expansion of coal mining in Queensland, proposed by Adani.
I can’t help but reflect on the journey we’ve been on since we started out on the eco path.
In 1997, after years of being frustrated with more and more poor quality bed & bath products coming from China, we decided we wanted to try and do better. (I can’t believe that was 20 years ago!) It seemed so obvious at the time that sustainability was the only way forward, so we decided everything we did from then on would be “eco” friendly.
We could also see all the major retailers going to China buying cheaper and cheaper lower quality products. We decided that we would support Australian or “downunder” manufacturing wherever we could.
Now that we knew what we wanted to do, we had to have something to sell. What would be our first product? We were in the bed & bath business, we wanted eco friendly and Australian made, how hard could it be?
We had heard about a cotton farmer near Narrabri, in New South Wales working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). We knew that cotton growing in Australia had a terrible reputation for the harsh chemicals and the large amount of water it used. After a 6 hour drive from Sydney, we thought we had found our guy.
Unfortunately, the project with the WWF had only just started and the mass scale of the cotton growing was way too big for us just starting out. However, they did tell us about a cotton grower in Queensland that had been trialling naturally coloured cotton.
Sooooo....., back in the car and another 6 hours drive later we were at another cotton farm in Queensland. We learned that cotton originally came from the Amazon rainforest and grew in many colours, just like many other plants. White had been commercialised because it could be dyed, but many of the coloured cottons had nearly disappeared. The Incas had used coloured cotton for their coloured shawls but one problem was that the colour strength was closely linked to the length of the fibre. Bright colours like gold and red meant very short fibres. The cotton growers had run a breeding program for a number of years using greens and browns, selecting the best colours and longest fibres for replanting the next season. Eventually, they had enough good quality seed to grow a full crop. And what a crop it was! They were now sitting on 50 road trains of Australian grown naturally coloured cotton that they couldn’t sell.
We thought we'd struck gold!
Australian grown, naturally coloured cotton that didn’t need to be dyed. Now, all we needed to do was make it into something. The yarn they had was too thick for bed linen but would be perfect for towels. We just had to find someone to weave the towels for us! Luckily, there was still one factory weaving towels in Australia at the time.
One thing about naturally coloured cotton was that we didn’t have to worry about testing and trialling colours..... nature had already decided that for us. After an extensive sampling process, we finally approved a design and pressed the start button on our first manufacturing run. One colour in one size! I have to admit, they looked pretty stringy when they first came off the loom, but after washing they looked fantastic!
We had our first product ready to sell and headed off to the Forest Way organic markets. We were as nervous as anything. Would people even like them? One thing we found out was that naturally coloured cotton faded in the sun, but the colour came back when you washed it. The opposite of conventionally dyed towels. Thankfully, people loved them.
Ecodownunder was on its way. We had our first eco friendly, Australian made product!
The next challenge was to make some bed linen. Unfortunately, our Australian grown naturally coloured cotton was just not a suitable colour for bed linen. What now?
The internet was at its early stages, so very little information was available online. I thought there must be other places outside Australia that were doing things with naturally coloured cotton, but they were just hard to track down. Maybe we could get some ideas?
Eventually, I heard of a guy working with local farmers at the foothills of the Andes in Peru. I still remember, it was 2 am when I finally tracked down James who was an anthropologist working on mummies in tombs in Peru. He told me how they had found naturally coloured cotton seeds in mummy wrappings. They had developed a program with the local government and farmers who had previously grown coca leaves for the cocaine trade. Eventually, we managed to get some samples but the Peruvian cotton was also not suitable because like the Australian cotton, the colour wouldn’t work on bed linen due to its light pink tinge.
James told me about a lady in the United States who was also growing naturally coloured cotton, Sally Fox.
I met Sally at her farm in northern California. As Sally showed me around the cotton fields, she also showed me a way to blend her Fox Fibre in a beautiful sheeting fabric that would have a wood grain effect. I was hooked. After meeting with Sally’s partner out in the Arizona desert, to buy some cotton, we just needed someone to spin and weave it for us.
This took us to another continent – to a factory near Karachi in Pakistan, who were prepared to take on the job. You have no idea how hard it was to buy a few bales of naturally coloured cotton in the United States, ship it to Pakistan, have it blended and spun in a very specific way, woven into wide width sheeting fabric and then shipped to Australia. We still wanted to do as much as we could in Australia, so we had our sheets made up in Australia. We ended up with beautiful soft green and soft brown sheets and quilt covers with a wood grain effect through the fabric. Most people loved them....even though, like the towels, they faded in the sun but rejuvenated in the wash.
Was it worth it? At times we felt like giving up but we wouldn’t change it for anything. Doing new things can be challenging but worth it in the long term. Please support businesses that are trying to do better. They may not be perfect but I guarantee they have worked hard to get to where they are on the journey.
I have to go now, there are dolphins swimming off the bow of the Steve Irwin and humpback whales breaching all around the ship.