Cotton fabric is highly durable and makes up 24% of all fibre use. Its versatility makes it popular across the fashion sector where it is found in everything from jeans to socks to formal wear and is a favourite of the t-shirt industry.
With such a global industry, knowing who grows the cotton for our clothes is more vital than ever to build an ethical sector.
Issues with cotton: environmental and human
The conversation surrounding cotton often focuses on the sustainability issues of the trade. Growing and manufacturing conventional cotton is a well-known environmental hazard. When conventionally grown, cotton production is a very water intensive process. On top of that, cotton farming is known to degrade soil, while its need for pesticide and fertiliser use pollutes air, soil and water sources.
The environmental issues of the cotton trade are important, however equally important is the human cost of the cotton industry.
The human impact of cotton production is far reaching and can be devastating when mismanaged or hidden by complex supply chains. Understanding where and how cotton is grown is the first step in creating a fairer, safer and more sustainable sector.
Where Does Cotton Come from and How is it Produced?
A cotton shirt begins life in the seed pods of cotton plants. The soft, fluffy material that is developed in the seed pods is harvested and processed to be turned into a fibre that can then be worked into thread. This thread is then woven into fabric.
Depending on what the fabric is being used for, it can be blended with other threads to make a finished textile. A common example of this is the addition of elastane threads for cotton used in the making of jeans.
The Human Cost of Cotton Farming
The cotton trade is one that is fraught with issues. These issues start at the farming stage and continue throughout the production line, from sweatshops to eventual fabric waste.
However, even focusing on the human impact of cotton production at just the farming stage showcases an industry that relies on unethical tactics, disregard for human safety, and consumer misinformation.
Who Grows Cotton for our Clothes?
In many regions, cotton is grown by smallholder farmers; this is particularly true for India. Smallholdings are farms less than two hectares in size. In 2020, India produced 25% of the world’s cotton, with much of this production coming from smallholdings. Similarly in Tanzania, there are 300,000 cotton smallholders.
The small size of these farms makes them particularly susceptible to issues facing the cotton industry, including:
While the cotton industry may be a booming business, poverty is rife within the cotton farming community. In Burkina Faso, a country in which cotton makes up 59% of exports, the average cotton farmer can expect to bring in just $790 a year.
Many of the people who grow cotton for our clothes come from low income and environmentally delicate regions. The cycle of poverty that many cotton farmers are trapped in is perpetuated by poor social welfare schemes and climate change. As these factors make their impact, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce a reliable cotton yield, furthering the poverty cycle. Similarly, poor social welfare schemes can mean poverty levels are worsened in times of economic hardship.
Smallholdings are at particular risk as they can struggle to compete against large cotton producers. This can cause farmers to be forced to accept lower prices, furthering the poverty crisis.
2. The Genetically Modified Cotton Crisis
The issue of poverty in cotton farming is further worsened by genetically modified cotton. Genetically modified (GM) cotton is widely used across India, with 80% of cotton produced in India genetically modified. Originally marketed as a solution to needing to buy pesticides, many farmers invested in GM cotton. However, unlike organic cotton in which seeds can be kept and replanted, GM seeds need to be repurchased every year.
As GM cotton and fertiliser companies increase prices, many low-income farmers find themselves unable to afford to continue. The financial predicament created by GM seeds has tragically been linked to suicides within the cotton farming sector, sadly a well documented problem in India.
3. Lacking Technology
Cotton farming is a labour intensive job. While in developed countries, this is normally done with the assistance of machines and technology, farmers in developing countries don’t have this luxury. The manual labour needs of the cotton industry can create dangerous working conditions and lead to work-related injuries for farmers.
4. Forced and Child Labour
The prevalence of forced and child labour in the cotton sector is another pressing concern.
Reports have found child labour in cotton farming in countries including India, China, Egypt and Uzbekistan, with children as young as seven working on farms. These children are regularly exposed to hazardous conditions and receive little to no pay.
Forced labour, involving both children and adults has become a major issue in cotton farming. One example of this is in Uyghur Region in China, which produces 80% of China’s cotton. The prevalence of forced labour in this region coupled with its high yield could mean that up to 20% of the world’s cotton comes from forced labour practices.
5. Toxic Pesticide
Conventionally grown cotton requires an alarming level of pesticide use. In fact, reports have found that some smallholder cotton producers spend over half their annual income on pesticides. These pesticides though have a worrying impact on human health.
Pesticide exposure has been linked to everything from acute poisoning to cancer, infertility, hormone imbalances, brain and nerve damage, and birth defects. As many farmers exist on a low income, these issues can be further exacerbated by not having access to sufficient health care.
6. Water, the Climate and Crop Diseases
Growing cotton requires a lot of water. The water intensive needs of cotton increases water scarcity and climate destruction. This further wreaks havoc on the industry as cotton growing becomes more difficult in poorer environmental conditions.
As climate change increases the intensity of water scarcity, cotton cultivation becomes less viable. This impacts the entire industry, but is felt keenly by low income farmers that rely on cotton cultivation to make a livelihood.
Disease poses another threat to cotton farmers existing on a hand to mouth basis. The impact of crop disease could be seen in Tanzania in 2013, when a new disease threatened to destroy 100% of marketable yield on some smallholder farms.
Like with many low-income industries, Covid-19 has created shockwaves in the cotton sector. The pandemic compounded the economic struggles of people living in poverty, and disruptions to supply chains impacted the industry.
What can be done?
This all seems very bleak, but cotton’s future doesn’t have to be a dark one. There are ways that we can help those who grow the cotton for our clothes to have fairer and safer conditions. This includes purchasing cotton mindfully from accredited organisations.
Organic cotton is GM-free and pesticide-free. Many of the organic cotton certifying bodies, such as GOTS also require farmers to adhere to fair labour practices, such as fair pay, prohibiting child labour, and bans on inhumane treatment. For our round up of the best organic cotton t shirt brands see here.
The Fairtrade Foundation is also working to improve the cotton industry. It requires producers and suppliers along the cotton supply chain to act ethically and fairly. An issue with Fairtrade is insufficient demand. Only close to half of Fairtrade cotton is marketed as Fairtrade due to a lack of demand for this type of ethical cotton.
Cotton Made in Africa
Cotton Made in Africa works with smallholders and partners throughout the value chain to foster positive improvement in the fashion sector. Working on a system of facilitating trade rather than donation handouts, the organisation works to enhance living, working and environmental conditions for African cotton farmers.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
While its programs aren’t as comprehensive as some others when it comes to benefitting farmers, including its lack of price premium for farmers, it does represent a step towards a more conscious cotton industry.
Regenerative agriculture is one of the new buzzwords in the cotton industry. This process emphasises good soil and water management. The practice includes minimising chemical use, diversifying plants and crop rotation, and using low tillage practices.
Regenerative agriculture aims not just to avoid the use of harmful chemicals but to strengthen and benefit plants, the soil and nature. The process often involves planting a range of crops that work together to provide mutual benefit to all.
Mimicking nature, this way of farming gives back to the earth while potentially improving yield. This form of farming also provides multiple income channels for farmers and reduces health impacts associated with the use of toxic chemicals.
A Fairer Industry
Cotton is a textile that is so ingrained in the fashion industry that it is likely to remain a highly used fabric for some time to come. An industry of dizzyingly complex supply chains, knowing who grows the cotton for our clothes can be difficult. However, the more we understand the issues of the cotton trade, the more power we have to change them.
While currently, many cotton farmers face an uphill battle, there are ways, initiatives and programs to make cotton a sector that is fair for all.