Saturday, August 29, 2009

Underwear that saved the world (or at least some of its inhabitants)

(Photo: Danny Smythe / iStockPhoto)

What do you do with old underwear? Some have suggested everything from a slingshot or an "emergency eye patch" to ... floss for a large mammal.

How about a tool to fight The Man? That's how a group of environmental and social justice advocates used their old underwear, in an innovative campaign that may just have worked.

For years, advocates have tried to convince multinational chemical company Bayer to cancel production of endosulfan, a pesticide banned in 62 countries but still used around the world, particularly on cotton and tomato crops (though its residue has been found on dozens of foods sold in the U.S.).

According to Beyond Pesticides, endosulfan is a persistent pesticide that has been linked to "autism, birth defects and male reproductive harm, as well as deaths and acute injuries to farmers through direct contact." (According to the World Health Organization, as many as three in every 100 farm workers worldwide suffers from pesticide poisoning.) It has also been implicated in health issues (little things like sprouting a second head) in wildlife, including fish, frogs, and polar bears.

Pants to Poverty, a London organic and fair-trade cotton underwear-maker with a mission that includes fighting world poverty, just handed out free organic undies to anyone who promised to send their old undies to Bayer's headquarters in Germany. A coalition of anti-pesticide and pro-fair-trade groups helped.

After receiving a mountain (one can imagine) of briefs, boxers, panties, and boy shorts from 16 countries, Bayer sent a letter to the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers (mission: self-evident). The letter reads in part: "We plan to stop the sale of the substance endosulfan by the end of 2010 in all the countries where it is still legally available" in favor of pesticides "with a significantly better risk profile."

That still leaves generic pesticide manufacturers and the government of India, which advocates say has stood in the way of international regulation of endosulfan. Still, Bayer is the world's first and largest maker of endosulfan, and this marks perhaps the greatest social action involving underwear since the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant.

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