By Arwa Lodhi
It’s in everything from our sweaters, jeans, and underwear to cotton buds and tampons. But is cotton ethical?
Since the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 and after the release of Andrew Morgan’s film The True Cost, many people are asking that question. There has been a rapid growth of interest in ethical fashion and the materials involved in the production processes.
It’s a rather surprising fact that around one in six people work in the global fashion supply chain, meaning fashion is the world’s most labor dependent industry. When you scratch beneath the surface of what this really means, you’ll find that many of those workers are laboring in cotton fields, as cotton is by far the world’s most important fiber crop.
“For fashion to be truly ethical, companies need to take a holistic approach that looks at every step – from how we treat garment workers in the factory all the way to the farmers who grow the cotton in your t-shirt,” said Matt Hamilton, Cotton and Textile Manager at Fairtrade America. “Brands that use more sustainable cotton are making that commitment a reality.”
Small-scale cotton farmers are an indispensable – but virtually invisible – part of the fashion supply chain. Although it is so abundant, as it’s currently grown, cotton fails to provide a sustainable livelihood for millions of farmers around the world – predominantly in Africa and Asia. Cotton farmers, pickers and processors wield little power or influence, and farmers, in particular, are often at the mercy of a highly volatile market. Since the 1960s, real cotton prices have fallen by 45 percent, from more than $1.37 per pound to just $.79 in 2014.
Government subsidies to large-scale farming operations in wealthy countries also affect impoverished farmers in countries where cotton can be grown more sustainably. Studies estimate that cotton price deflation caused by subsidy schemes in developed countries is associated with an annual loss of income to African farmers of $250m.
Natural, but not so eco-friendly
Although may believe that since it’s a natural plant, cotton must be eco-friendly, that is not usually the case. In fact, conventional cotton takes a heavy toll on the environment – it’s estimated that cotton production required $3.3 billion worth of pesticides in 2014, including many that are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). These chemicals, plus poor storage and lack of training in how to use them often results in health problems for workers.
Another issue with cotton is that it’s a very thirsty plant, requiring heavy irrigation. Inefficient irrigation systems can deplete local water sources, while flood irrigation results in fertilizer and pesticide runoff polluting rivers, lakes and water tables.
A final, but very important issue with cotton is that the vast majority of cotton crops today are genetically modified. GMO cotton not only has environmental implications but social ones, too.
As reported by Natural News, GMO cotton is having tragic effects in India. The suicide rate among Indian cotton farmers has skyrocketed since the introduction of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds in 2002 because the seeds don’t replicate naturally and farmers are forced to buy new ones each season. With no alternate options, farmers’ incomes are consequently being stretched thinner than ever before. Around one Indian farmer killed himself every 30 minutes in 2009, for a grand total of 17,638 in that year alone. So predominant was this phenomenon that it was given a dark name: “The GM Genocide.”
In terms of more general dangers, GMO cotton uses extremely heavy pesticides, including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan. These pesticides were used in World War II as toxic nerve gases and agents, and not only harm cotton workers at all stages of production, but they are also toxic to wildlife, waterways, soil micro-organisms and can even leach into the skin of those who wear the finished cotton garments.
According to Amy Leech of the Soil Association — ” Cotton farming, in particular, is said to be a “toxic business. It uses a lot of pesticides—putting in peril the lives of women, men and children in cotton farming communities. 77 million cotton workers suffer poisonings from pesticides each year.”
The right kind of cotton
The bottom line is that cotton is only really sustainable if it is organic or Fairtrade. There are currently more than 55,000 cotton farmers organized into more than 22 Fairtrade producer organizations in Africa and Asia. Research released last year demonstrated that the social and environmental footprint of cotton from these farmers is five times lower than conventionally-produced cotton.
For farmers, the most significant social advantage of Fairtrade is, of course, an increased income. Besides a fairer price, farmers receive additional income for investing in their business and community through the Fairtrade Premium. The Fairtrade Foundation estimates that a 1% increase in the retail price of clothing could result in a 10% increase in the seed cotton price for farmers.
As the world looks to improve the fashion industry, here are some suggestions to consider before buying new clothes:
- Look at the label & do some homework – Ask your favorite brand where they source their cotton or look online to see if they’ve shared their supplier list. Ensure the label says ‘organic cotton’ to protect your health and that of cotton workers – and the planet.
- Buy less, buy better – Ethically-produced, sustainable clothing can cost more. Don’t try to change everything at once. Research brands and what they’re doing and find one piece to start your journey.
- Seek out textiles using organic or Fairtrade cotton – Find a complete list here.
- Share the message – Join the Fashion Revolution, a global movement to change the textile industry. Take a selfie with the label in your clothing on display and tag the brand and add the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes.
Brands To Trust
This pioneering eco-fashion brand prides itself on using only non-GMO, organic cotton, ethically harvested. From this soft material, they make all kinds of fashion staples, from pajamas and underwear to sweaters.
Doc Cotton is a London-based brand focusing on 100% sustainable cotton fashion and accessories curated for the nation’s personal taste. All their items are handmade in Peckham by a talented team, ensuring each garment is carefully made to order for individual taste through digital printing. They are passionate about zero waste packaging and fashion being accessible to all so that we get to choose our style, from print size to choice of buttons.
For more information about organic cotton, please click here.