Image by Travis S.
By Angela Oakley
The story of cotton is a sorry tale, spun and woven with long dark threads. I should know, I come from Lancashire and like many of the folk from thereabouts, my family once worked in the cotton mills.
In 2009 I volunteered with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum’s schools team and soon realised that schools had recognised the educational benefits of teaching about Fair Trade, yet there was no Fairtrade cotton schoolwear worn in Scottish schools. This is akin to schools teaching about healthy eating and then serving fatty, salty, sugary food in the canteen. I began to investigate.
I quickly learned that although cotton is a hugely important commodity, known as White Gold, it has a dark side. I discovered a bundle of problems with cotton. I am a mum myself, and wouldn’t want my children going to school in schoolwear made from cotton produced under the conditions which prevail in some of the world’s cotton fields.
I learned too, that Fairtrade cotton addresses these problems, protects both people and planet and that good quality Fairtrade cotton schoolwear is easily available.
My Dad once described to me the “fly” in the noisy cotton mills of Lancashire that he would visit as part of his work. “Fly” was threads and fibres in the air which would cause respiratory diseases amongst the mill workers. Today, the health and safety of workers in the UK are protected by law. Yet the cotton worn and used in the UK is produced by workers who are not similarly protected.
Cotton Unfolded is an on-line exhibition that was put together to raise awareness of the issues with cotton and the way Fairtrade cotton addresses these issues. Drawing on the history of cotton in the UK, it examines issues such as slavery, unfair payment schemes, working conditions and environmental protection. It develops the idea that campaigners and reformers have been successful in outlawing unjust practices here, and that Fairtrade cotton offers a way of ending them elsewhere today.
A series of photographs, cartoons and drawings illustrate the story. The exhibition is packed with lots of easily digestible information, but for those wanting to know more, there is a list of additional references and further educational resources.
The exhibition can be viewed here.