A child picks cotton in Uzbekistan, photograph, from the Environmental Justice Foundation
In Uzbekistan children and adults are forced to work in the cotton fields.
With the exception of gold, cotton is produced in more countries with child or forced labour than any other commodity in the global supply chain. Cotton is often picked by children who have been trafficked and denied basic human rights.
A farmer in Senegal sprays a cotton field, photograph, courtesy of PAN UK
Cotton is known as a “dirty crop” because of the widespread use of pesticides in its cultivation. Pesticide misuse leads to soil contamination and causes thousands of deaths and hospitalisations each year amongst cotton farmers.
The use of GM crops has led to a decrease in biodiversity and farmers are oppressed by large seed manufacturers. In some cases they are prevented from re-using seeds from good harvests.
The Aral Sea in 1989 and 2008, satellite photographs, from NASA’s Earth Observatory
The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest lake, however the rivers that flowed into it have been diverted to boost cotton production. The sea has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. A desert of salty sand remains, and fishing and tourism industries have been devastated. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, described this as “one of the worst environmental disasters of the world”.
Environmentally damaging and unsustainable farming techniques are common in modern cotton cultivation.
Cotton Price Index shows Cotlook A Index (of prices quoted in US cents per lb) from Cotlook Ltd.
Fluctuation in prices mean farmers cannot rely on a secure price for their crop, so long-term financial planning is difficult. African and Indian cotton farmers struggle to compete with subsidised cotton from the US and China.
The cotton farmer rarely receives a fair share of what the consumer pays. In some cases the price farmers receive for their cotton crop does not even cover the cost of its production. Cotton prices are too low for many cotton farmers to keep their children in school, buy food or pay for healthcare.
‘Cotton is King’, illustration, 2012, Simon Dwyer
A fashion lover kneels on a cotton slave whilst worshipping cotton. Cheap, disposable fashion is popular and readily available on our high streets, yet sweat shop practices are widespread in Asian factories where the garments are made. Dirt cheap garments allow western consumers to live off the backs of the unimaginably poor.
Cotton is the most important natural fibre used in the textile industry worldwide today. It accounts for about 40 per cent of global textile production. It is important because it is sustainable. It has been used for thousands of years. Cotton is the largest non-food crop in the world. It is grown in more than one hundred countries. Over one in seven people worldwide are employed at some point in the cotton market, from growing the crop to selling the cotton garments. It is known as White Gold, and its value cannot be ignored.
The dark side
Whereas many of the historic injustices in the cotton industry in Scotland were eradicated, this has not been the case in the cotton supply chain. White Gold has a dark side. Cotton is still a crop associated with slavery. A significant number of cotton pickers are children who miss school to pick the cotton and who are forced to work long hours every day. Forced labour and debt bondage are still present in the world’s cotton fields. Working conditions outlawed in the UK are now found in the sweat shops of Asian garment factories, where some workers have little choice but to work up to eighty hours a week in unsafe conditions earning wages that do not cover the cost of living. The problems have not been eradicated, they have moved elsewhere.
Although cotton is important on world commodity markets, cotton farmers have not seen the price of cotton rise over recent decades. The decline in cotton prices in real terms has been accelerated by the payment of subsidies by rich cotton producing countries in Europe and the US, protecting their own cotton producers at the expense of poor farmers in poor countries. Large monopolizing seed companies pursuing profits control the sale of cotton seeds and prevent farmers from saving seeds, a process they relied on in the past. In India hundreds of cotton farmers have committed suicide in recent years. Their situation became desperate as they were unable to pay debts to pesticide suppliers.
The problems are not just social and economic, there are environmental problems too. The cotton plant is vulnerable to pests and so large amounts of pesticides are used in its cultivation. These damaging pesticides, banned in Europe, contaminate not just the cotton fields but also the surrounding area, polluting local rivers and water supplies. Cotton is a demanding crop. It needs plentiful supplies of water and nutrients. Care needs to be taken to ensure these are replaced after the cotton has been harvested. The cost of the water footprint of worldwide cotton consumption is paid far away from those who wear the garments.
A thread of unfairness still runs through the industry. Practices long since considered unacceptable in the UK are prevalent in the cotton supply chain.
Additional references for Current Cotton:
- Cottoned On Campaign
- Cotton Campaign
- Environmental Justice Foundation
- International Cotton Campaign against Slavery
- International Slavery Museum
- Walk Free
- White Gold: The True Cost of Cotton
- I.D: Fashion creates more greenhouse pollution than the airline industry
- Eco Watch
- True Cost Movie
- River Blue:The Movie
- The Machinists
Further Educational Resources