Sally Fox: innovation in the field
Sally Fox didn't invent colored cotton -- it has always existed in nature. The Incas used it in their textiles. Khaki was first made in India from brown cotton. In the United States, slaves grew brown and green cotton in their own gardens, since they were forbidden from growing white cotton that they might sell.
When Fox introduced her own colored cotton to the world in 1989, though, she had done something no one had thought possible: created a naturally colored cotton that could be spun (made into thread) on a machine. Until then, colored cotton had suffered from short, weak fibers, which meant it had to be spun by hand, a slow and expensive task. The only cotton that was commercially viable was white cotton, which had been bred and refined to have long, strong fibers, perfect for machines to work with. But white cotton is not an environmentally friendly product. Before it becomes jeans, or sheets, or a shirt, it has to be bleached and then dyed, and both processes create large amounts of pollution. Foxfibre, the brand name of Fox's cottons, required no bleaching or dyeing. Her first two colors - a celadon green and a warm reddish brown -- were immediate sensations. For the first time, the textile industry and the public saw how environmentally friendly clothes could be. Orders for her cotton began pouring in.
Fox never imagined she would be a cotton revolutionary. But in many
ways everything she had done before announcing her new cotton had
been perfect training for the role. When she was 12, she fell in love
with the process of spinning. With a spindle she bought from babysitting
money, she created thread out of all sorts of materials, from the
cotton in medicine bottles to her dog's hair. She was soon a master
spinner. But Fox also dreamed of living and working far from cities.
Until she was seven, she lived on the last acres of land her father's
family had homesteaded in Woodside, California. "There were big
expanses of land," she says. "When we moved from that into
Menlo Park I never got over it. I always wanted to live in the country
and have some means of supporting myself."
In high school, she discovered a new passion: entomology, the study
of insects. An entomologist visiting from Kenya, Elizabeth Wangari,
taught a class on the subject and helped Fox get an internship at
Zoecon, Carl Djerassi's company, which was developing natural ways
to control insects. Wangari also encouraged her to go to college --
Fox had wanted to start a hand-spinning business -- where she studied
biology and entomology. After she graduated, Fox joined the Peace
Corps and traveled to the Gambia, in West Africa, to help fight the
pests and diseases that affected rice and peanuts. What she really
learned there, though, were the dangers of pesticides. Europe and
the United States had recently banned DDT and other chlorinated-hydrocarbon-based
pesticides, and some European manufacturers had "donated"
their large stocks to African countries -- in unlabeled, leaking 55-gallon
drums. It was an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The local
men hired to administer the pesticide were instead selling bags of
it at the market for people to use on household pests. Fox began giving
safety classes on the pesticide's use, but she also became very ill
from exposure to them. "It was so horrible that I actually had
to leave" before her two-year assignment was finished, she says.
"So I'm sort of a fanatic against pesticides."
When Fox began looking for work in the United States in the early 1980s, the farming industry had just entered a long economic depression from which it has never fully recovered. The only job Fox could find in her field was as a pollinator for a cotton breeder searching for pest-resistant plants. She was bored by the job, since it took a year to see if new strains of cotton were better than old ones. One day she found a bag of seeds that produced cotton that was pest-resistant but brown. The breeder hadn't pursued these seeds because he didn't think he could get rid of the color. Fox was intrigued. "I said, "Why aren't we doing this?'" she remembers. "And he said, 'Why don't you do it?' So I went through the seeds and hand-spun each single one. I decided which ones were the easiest ones to spin and I planted those. That was the beginning."
the next seven years -- even after she stopped working for the cotton
breeder -- Fox tended her cotton plants, now growing in pots on her
back porch. Each year, when the cotton bolls opened up, she would
carefully select seeds from the plants with the best fibers and the
best colors. She also cross-bred her cotton with white cotton to produce
a longer fiber or staple. "I was an entomologist, and I hadn't
read all the plant books saying you couldn't breed for longer staple,"
she says. Eventually she had two colored cottons that were stable
-- they didn't change when planted in the field -- and were spinnable.
She applied for and won Plant Variety Protection Certificates for
them, the plant equivalents of patents.
In 1989 she sold her first crop, 122 bushels of cotton, to a Japanese mill. American customers weren't far behind. Levi's began making 'natural' jeans and other clothes. L. L. Bean, Land's End, and Espirit also placed big orders. Fox was running a $10 million business. She put together a network of cotton growers that produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of Foxfibre cotton.
But Fox's natural cotton revolution has not been a smooth one. California's
powerful cotton growers were afraid that her colored varieties would
contaminate their own crops. They imposed strict rules on her operation,
which forced her to move to Arizona in 1993. Six years later, Arizona
cotton growers did the same thing, and Fox had to relocate again,
this time to Northern California. Even worse for her business were
the changes in the spinning industry. Between 1990 and 1995, most
of the spinning mills in Japan and Europe closed, as well as many
in the United States. 'What was going on was the beginnings of globalization,"
Fox explains. "Everything was moving to Southeast Asia and South
America." These mills wouldn't or couldn't process the relatively
small quantities of cotton her farmers produced, and she lost her
Until the spinning industry moved to less-developed countries, Fox's cotton had a financial advantage over traditional cotton. It cost about $2 per pound of cotton to treat and dispose of the toxic waste from the cotton-dyeing process. However, many of the new, offshore mills weren't required to protect the environment, and didn't. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, Fox noticed a headline in the local newspaper: "Farmers Downstream from Denim Plant Lose Entire Crop." A dye plant had dumped its waste just when the rice harvest began, and killed some 300 acres of crops. "If it kills the plants like that," she asks, "What are the long-term effects?"
all of her cotton's ups and downs, Fox has continued to develop new
colors. It takes about 10 years of careful selection from generation
to generation to coax a usable variety of cotton from an initial cross-bred
seed. "You get a color, and it's not a great plant, and it's
not a great fiber, but it's a color," she says. "And then
you keep at it until you get a better plant. You just work at it year
after year." She has a new redwood color almost ready for market;
combined with white cotton, it makes a shade of pink. She's also added
a deeper "New Green" and the chocolate-toned "Buffalo"
to the Foxfibre line.
Fox now concentrates on smaller mills and smaller customers, and she
is rebuilding her business and her network of growers. One new client
is emblematic of her hopes for Foxfibre. Two brothers in Mexico, she
explains, want to rebuild their family's spinning business. Their
grandfather had built a mill, then a dyeing plant, then a factory,
and finally a store for the clothes he produced. By the time the brothers
were in their twenties, though, the village's water supply had been
destroyed by the dyes, and the mill shut down. With Fox's cotton,
they hope to start the mill up again and to set an example for other
mills in the area that it's possible to make textiles without destroying
the local environment. "They're the kinds of people I dream of
selling to," Fox says. "It can really make a difference."
Colour-by-Nature, Colorganic, and EcoBlend are all registered
trademarks of Vreseis, Ltd.