Cottoning on to Cotton
Through my work in the sustainable fashion arena I've spent a significant amount of time researching the environmental impact of cotton, but more recently I've also been considering the history behind it and its relevance to the social impact of the way we produce fabrics today.
Cotton, one of fashion’s most-used materials, is also amongst its most problematic. Thread Tales avoid using conventional cotton as it is generally grown using high volumes of pesticides and insecticides. It's also a water-intensive crop that’s coming under mounting scrutiny as climate concerns become more mainstream. The World Economic Forum has identified water scarcity as one of the top ten global risks to society over the next ten years, and the majority of cotton is grown in countries facing water shortages. Certified organic cotton is the best option to ensure that what you are buying is sustainable. Over 1/5 of the water used to grow non-organic cotton is to dilute toxic synthetic pesticides to ‘safe levels’ before they re-enter the waterway. Pesticides are banned from organic production, plus the healthier organic soil holds water and so can rely on rainwater rather than extraction from the ground.
You may be familiar with the history of Slavery in cotton plantations, particularly from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War. To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialisation, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles South, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient labourers in the cotton fields.
What's become more obvious to me in recent times is just how much the production of fashion (textiles or clothing) is still often supported by exploratory and perverse systems.
Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and the government of Uzbekistan uses one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labour to produce it. Over a million people are estimated to be forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by their own governments every year.
Certified Organic Cotton growers are regulated. They grow other crops alongside the cotton in rotation, in order to control pests and diseases (rather than using a cocktail of chemicals). These additional crops can provide farming communities with a more diverse and stable food supply and offer another source of income.
It is disgusting that exploitation of workers (and especially women) continues to be rife in today’s industry; in particular in factories producing 'fast fashion' garments both abroad and in our own back yard. Companies outsource production, taking advantage of the deregulated nature of the global economy to both avoid responsibility for guaranteeing even the most basic rights, and to pitch producers against one another to get the most profitable deal. Leicester's 'sweat shop' fashion factories where workers are paid below minimum wage in crumbling, cramped environments are alleged to be associated with the recent surge in Corona Virus cases by the campaign group, Labour Behind the Label. It seems many of these workers have been pressured to work through lockdown in unsafe conditions.
Cheap garments with a low value reflect the company's low valuation of another's life. It's a more sanitised version of cotton slavery, but no less wrong.
Retailers can sign up to https://www.sourcingnetwork.org, and the initiative YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced to drive slavery out of cotton production by eliminating the market for cotton produced with forced labour and increasing the use of ethical and sustainable cotton.
75% Hand Spun Cashmere and 25% Organic Cotton