14 Jun

Material Guide: How Ethical Is Cotton?

It’s the light breathable fabric that keeps your skin cool in summer, flutters flirtingly in the breeze, and keeps your sheets silky smooth. If you’ve used a cotton product today chances are you’re in league with the rest of us, who use cotton on a daily basis. Cotton may have done a lot to clean up its image since it’s colonial days as the crop that launched a thousand slaves  (or, if we’re being precise, 1.8 million) to the American cotton fields, but how much has actually changed?

Soft, light and breathable, cotton is a natural fibre often associated with quality clothing, and can be found in many wardrobe staples, such as jeans and t-shirts. Compared to other common clothing fibres such as synthetic polyester and semi-synthetic rayon and bamboo, cotton has the advantage of being a completely natural product, that doesn’t require an intensive chemical process in order to be transformed into a fabric.

But although cotton is a naturally occurring fibre, it’s production is nevertheless haunted by claims of pollution, exploitation, and even slavery.

The most abundantly produced natural fibre in the world, in 2013, cotton represented 96% of all natural fibres consumed. With so much cotton being produced globally, we have a closer look at some of the issues, concerns and solutions to the production of this so-called “white gold” and ask, just how ethical is cotton?

Cotton: The Thirsty Crop

Cotton requires a lot of water but is mostly grown in arid conditions. This means that large amounts of water are used to grow cotton every year. This “virtual water” needs to be considered when you purchase your cotton products. According to reports it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. That’s enough to make just one t-shirt and one pair of jeans.

However, this high use of water wastage isn’t only due to irrigation – it is also commonly a result of inefficient water usage, and pollution due to pesticide use (more on pesticides later). Another way in which water gets polluted is due to the use of chemicals in the production and dying process. It is very expensive to safely dispose of the hazardous chemicals often used in fabric dying. Due to pressures to produce clothing cheaper, this often results in the contamination of river systems. It is estimated that factories in China save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by this very method.

When we buy our cotton goods, we need to be aware that we are also buying many litres of “virtual water” – this sounds arbitrary, but think about it this way: in India alone, a country where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production would be sufficient to provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.

The Big Deal With GMO Cotton

Here are a couple of statistics that might surprise and shock you: genetically modified (GMO) cotton seeds now account for 95% of the cotton market in India. Nothing too shocking there, you think – but how about this: since 1995, more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide.

The link between these two sets of figures might not initially be obvious, however, it has been suggested that the introduction of GMO cotton has actually worsened the lives of Indian farmers, in addition to other factors. Although GMO cotton is not directly responsible for Indian farmer suicides, the fact is that they are a contributing factor to the web of debt in which many Indian farmers find themselves inextricably caught.

Why the problem? In brief, the idea behind GMO cotton seeds is they contain Bt toxins, which are supposed to be resistant to various pests, specifically the bollworm, which can be catastrophic for cotton. So far, so good, but wait, there’s more….

The problems arise when it comes to replanting: GMO cotton seeds have been modified so that they cannot reproduce, meaning that farmers cannot retain some of the seeds for the following crop, but must buy new seeds each year. Add to this the fact that due to high demand for cotton seeds and government regulated prices, many farmers must buy their Bt cotton seeds on the black market for prices much higher than the market value (about three to eight times the cost of conventional seeds). Because many small-scale farmers are unable to take loans from larger organisations, they are pushed into the arms of private money lenders, with higher interest rates.

In addition to all this, despite the fact that Bt cotton is supposed to prevent pests, reports have indicated that it may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Bt cotton seeds are sold by the Monsanto company, but in order to manage the resulting cotton crops, farmers must also purchase pesticides from the same company. Many of the chemicals used in these sprays are banned in the west, yet are used by these farmers without any protective wear or training. Often, when farmers do commit suicide, it is by swallowing the pesticides they cannot afford to pay off.

The Human Cost

With its roots in the slave trade, the cotton industry certainly has a dubious past. But what about now? The industry can’t seem to shirk the allegations of child slavery and forced labour at various stages of the process. From Uzbekistan, where allegations of child labour and the environmental destruction of the Aral Sea, (which used to be the fourth largest sea in the world, now dried up) are rife, to India where there are similar accusations of forced labour and environmental pollution. Then there are issues in countries such as West and Central Africa and Brazil, where farmers are unable to compete with the cost of US subsidised cotton.

Child labour is often used at various stages of the cotton production process, and even after the plants have been harvested, the conditions under which workers refine and process the raw cotton can amount to bonded labour. If only there was a better way, right? Well, it just so happens there is…..

Organic Cotton

So what’s with all the hype about organic cotton? Well, apart from the fact that it doesn’t contain all those harmful chemicals (always a good starting point), organic cotton comes with other advantages. According to a study,  hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing. So organic cotton isn’t just better for the health of the people growing it, it’s also considerably better for you wearing it too!

The seeds are cheaper than Bt cotton, helping farmers to escape the cycle of debt and poverty. And less pesticides = better for the environment, better for the farmers’ health, better for you!

Of course, there is still the issue of how the organic cotton is processed and turned into clothing, so it’s important to make sure that companies using organic cotton also have robust labour policies in place too.

You can check out where companies stand on environmental and labour rights using the Good On You app to compare various brand’s stances on these issues. Of course, there are certain accreditations you can look for that make choosing fabrics that are sustainable at all levels of the production process. These include Fairtrade, Global Organic Textile Standard , and the Better Cotton Initiative.

Here’s one final statistic for you: 93% of Australian brands don’t know where their cotton comes from. That’s a pretty hefty number, but take it as a good sign: there’s plenty of opportunities to let brands know that you care, and support those who are doing the right thing by their workers and customers.

A few of our favourite brands for organic cotton include: BhumiKowtow, Nudie Jeans, Etiko, and No Nasties.

Do you know any other brands using organic cotton? Let us know in the comments.


Editor's note: Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You has big plans for ethical fashion in 2019! To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offers code or affiliate links.

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