February 14, 2019 | By Erin Quinn-Kong
Meet La Rhea Pepper and the other women determined to change the industry.
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.