Thursday, June 04, 2009

Ordinary Hero: Christine Nielson

Watch this.

Who knew that a simple act, such as choosing organic cotton over conventionally grown cotton, could save lives? Christine Nielson knew--and did something about it. A former school teacher who had helped indigenous women in Mexico use traditional skills to raise their standard of living, Nielson developed the entrepreneurial "fire in the belly" when she visited the cotton fields of her friend Sally Fox. Fox is a hero in her own right. She revolutionized the cotton industry when she developed plants that grew long-fiber colored cotton, reducing the need for bleach.

Nielson saw Fox's beautiful, cotton in earthy, natural colors as an environmentally sound and humane alternative and founded Coyuchi. Its mission, according to Coyuchi's Joanne Sims, in Hope & Luxury: To stop the production of conventionally grown cotton.

From the beginning our mission was to work with sustainable agriculture. Organic and fair trade means these farmers are paid an extra amount and it gives them a meaningful improvement in the quality of life.
Christine Nielson in Marin Independent Journal

Cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop on the planet. Doing an organic cotton bedding line is a way of offering people a quality product, as well as--since sheets are big and heavy and use a lot of fiber--making a substantial contribution to pollution reduction.
Christine Nielson, as quoted in
SF Gate/Organic Materials

Frequently cited as the first company to manufacture organic cotton fabric for commercial use, Coyuchi launched a line of luxurious organic bedding and bath products and placed them strategically in upscale boutiques and shops, where trendy patrons couldn't get enough. Leveraging the growing demand for her products, Nielson forged exclusive relationships with mills and growers in India. Demand continued to grow, enough that prices came down to within reach of ordinary people like you and me.

In its December 2007, issue, Ode Magazine asked Nielson: What can make growing organic cotton sustainable for the farmers? Her reply was simple:

Only with the added benefit and support of fair-trade certification can organic cotton farming work over the long haul. The higher price for organic cotton in addition to the premium for fair-trade certification assures more returns. Half of the fair-trade premium goes to farmers’ committees and will be utilized for projects that benefit the community, such as setting up schools and providing drinking water.

In providing Westerners with gorgeous comforters and sheets, pesticide-free crib bedding on which to lay our baby's heads, and luxuriously soft towels in the bath, Nielson gave nearly destitute cotton farmers in India, many of whom were already sickened from exposure to insecticides they used on their conventional cotton crops, a hand up and hope for a much brighter future. How did she do it? By giving them a market for cotton fibers grown in the traditional--and organic--way, as they had grown them for thousands of years.

If you watched the The Conventional Trap at the beginning of this post, you'll be heartened to learn what Coyuchi and its partners have achieved in Growing Back to Organic, here.

Not only did Nielson pay more for organic cotton than GMO prices (Note: Due to lower yields in early years, returns are about even with GMO returns, but expected to increase as the soil is replenished.), but in partnership with Solidaridad and the Chetna Organic Farmers Association, she helped bring fair trade practices to the farms, insuring that workers are treated humanely and compensated fairly.

Also with the Chetna Organic Farmers Association, she helped initiate the Livestock & Field Infrastructure Development Project, which she dubbed "The Cow Project," according to OrganicStyle, which explains the project here.

It Takes Six Villages/The Cow Project

Although Chetna trains and supports its members in organic growing practices, the farmers are missing some essentials - most importantly, livestock. Cows and bullocks provide the manure for making compost; their urine is collected, fermented, and applied to cotton plants as a concentrated soure [sic] of nitrogen and natural pesticide. Meanwhile, the cows' milk supplements family diets and provides an additional source of income. On average, the calves born each year contribute more than 3,000 rupees, or $75, to the the groups of farmers and their families.

Together, Chetna and Coyuchi have developed a pilot program with the aim of acquiring 91 cows and constructing 10 cowsheds for six villages as well as building shelters to help lengthen their life expectancy.

Nielson did not stop with the farmers, however. She partnered with fair-trade mills to ensure their workers were also compensated fairly, without discrimination, and that dyes and finishes are safe. Your baby, sleeping on a Coyuchi crib sheet, will never inhale residual formaldehyde, for example, which is used in most conventional cotton products.

This year, Nielson sold Coyuchi to Organic Style, Ltd. "I didn't have the fire in the belly anymore to want to keep investing tremendous amounts of energy into commerce," Nielson told Organic Bouquet's Clark Merrefield.

The work Nielson began will continue under the leadership of Organic Style's founder and CEO, Gerald Prolman. Says Prolman, "You've got six thousand growers in India that are counting on us to sell their goods. I'm going to scream the Coyuchi message as long as I'm running this company."

Ordinary Heroes Award badge
For changing the way we think about organic products, for providing us with beautiful bed and bath linens made of sustainably grown, harvested, milled and shipped fibers, for saving lives, for improving the quality of life for textile laborers from field to packaged goods, for helping farmers to earn a better living, safely, while replenishing the soil upon which we all depend, for going beyond her company's needs and working with local organizations to provide safe drinking water and livestock for food and crop management, for caring about the earth and the generations to come at home and abroad, and for bringng the vision of the Village of Ordinary a little closer to reality, the Ordinary Heroes award is kindly offered to Christine Nielson with deep gratitude.

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For more about organic cotton, including links to numerous organic cotton products and suppliers, ranging from baby toys and crib blankets to high fashion white shirts for men and yummy fashions for women, visit my Squidoo lens, Why Buy Organic Cotton. For more on the effects of conventional cotton growing on the lives of growers, see the PBS documentary, The Dying Fields, on the cotton farmer suicide epidemic in India.


  1. Anonymous10:03 AM

    Christine Nielson is such an amazing woman and a great example to us all! Thank you for highlighting her work!


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