We often think it’s one of the most eco-friendly fabrics around. But is cotton ethical? We investigate
By Diane Small
It’s in everything from our sweaters, jeans, and underwear to cotton buds and tampons. We often think of it as being super eco-friendly, since it’s made from plants. But is cotton ethical? And how eco-friendly is it, really?
Since the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 and after the release of Andrew Morgan’s film The True Cost, many people are asking such questions. 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,” says Matt Hamilton, Cotton and Textile Manager at Fairtrade America. “Brands that use more sustainable cotton are making that commitment a reality.”
Suffering from subsidies
To answer the question is cotton ethical, the first place we need to look is in the fields, where the farmers work.
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. This is particularly true 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. To make matters worse, 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 prices for impoverished farmers in developing countries. There, cotton could be grown more sustainably. But because these small scale farmers need to compete with the subsidies from countries with rich governments, they tend to use the maximum levels allowed for pesticides and herbicides to ensure their crops grow as abundantly as possible.
Even so, farmers in developing countries lose out to subsidies. Some 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.
Slavery that never ended
But that’s not even the worst of it, when it comes to cotton farming.
Picking cotton has been associated with slavery for decades. We tend to think that terrible era has ended, and in the USA, it has. However, slave labour is still used to pick cotton in China.
In fact, it’s estimated that one in five cotton garments in the global marketplace is tainted by slave labour. Moreover, around 20% of the world’s cotton comes from the Uyghur region in China, where the Communist government is carrying out a genocide of this Muslim ethnic group.
For that reason, the Uyghur Human Rights Project has issued a call for a ban on the import of cotton and cotton products from China. Save Uighur has reported a list of 83 fashion brands that are using Uyghur slavery for their cottons and fabrics. This list includes brands that claim they’re becoming more ‘sustainable’, such as Zara and H&M, and ‘woke’ brands that claim to be against racism, such as Nike, Gap, and Adidas. How ironic!
Natural, but not so eco-friendly
Another area to explore when asking is cotton ethical is its sustainability.
Although many believe that since it’s a natural plant, cotton must be eco-friendly, that’s not necessarily 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 serious 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 fertiliser and pesticide runoff polluting rivers, lakes and water tables.
Why GMO cotton is worse than you think
A final, but very important issue with cotton is that the vast majority of it today is genetically modified. GMO cotton not only has environmental implications, but social ones, too.
For example, the Natural Society reports that 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, farmers must buy new ones each season. Which they often can’t afford to do.
With no alternate options, farmers’ incomes are consequently being stretched thinner than ever before. Approximately one Indian farmer killed himself every 30 minutes in 2009. That year alone, there were a total of 17,638 farmer suicides. 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. These include: aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan. These same pesticides are so toxic, they were used in World War II as toxic nerve gases and agents! They not only harm cotton workers at all stages of production, but they are also toxic to wildlife, waterways, soil microorganisms, and can even leach into the skin of those who wear the finished cotton garments. In other words, GMO cotton can harm your health.
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. Over 77 million cotton workers suffer poisonings from pesticides each year.”
No fabric is worth that!
What’s the most ethical kind of cotton, then?
So, is cotton ethical? The clear answer is: not usually. But it can be.
The bottom line is that cotton is only really ethical and sustainable if it is organic or Fairtrade. There are currently more than 55,000 cotton farmers organised into more than 22 Fairtrade producer organisations 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.
What you can do
As the world looks to improve the fashion industry, here are some suggestions to consider before buying new cotton 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
- Particularly avoid Chinese cotton or brands that use it – Otherwise, you could be supporting modern slavery.
By following these tips, the next time someone asks you: is cotton ethical? At least you can answer: the cotton I’m wearing is!
For more information about organic cotton, please click here.