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Dirty Clothes: The Costs of King Cotton

The planetary cost of an anonymous and globalized fashion industry is huge. And if you really want to know how bad, it only trails the chemical-laden culture of widely recognized polluters from industries like big oil and agriculture. Rarely does clothing come under the same scrutiny as say, our food, where it’s much simpler to track down produce sourced with ethics and quality in mind.

Throughout the series we’ll call Dirty Clothes, prepare to glance beneath the glam of the fashion industry by exploring the ecological and human toll lurking inside your closet.

Black and white

June 01, 2017

Global Fashion & Nature, White Paper #1

Now that more have become conscious of food sources, the focus is shifting to other daily essentials, like clothes. Faced with the moral weight of our purchasing decisions, most shoppers are uncomfortable buying from companies who shrug-off nature and abuse her resources. But feeling trapped inside a system is easy, it’s finding your way out that’s the secret.

All Hail Your Cotton King

Cotton surrounds you. It’s in your underwear, socks, towels and bedding. It’s cheap and more comfortable than synthetics. The very idea of cotton is sold to you by attractive, warm-hearted hipsters as “the fabric of our lives...”

While in buy-buy-buy-mode, you probably don’t care where your favorite T-shirts are made nor how, since every one you own in you own seems to be made in China. And, until now, maybe you never thought much about it. But consider, just for a moment, how malls and huge retail department chains are able to sell three white T-shirts bundled in plastic for about $10: Chasing bargains is not always a good idea.

Every product we use has a story, a unique history, even if it is just one of a billion whatevers. It informs us about products, about the world, about workers somewhere out there. The ecological impact of cheap clothing is often unknown and misunderstood. Despite being good at exploiting insecurities, fashion marketers are even better at hiding a brand’s toxic waste and pollution.

As the number one fiber crop in the world, cotton takes up only 2.4% of global cropland, yet it accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide market and 11% of global pesticide sales. All the agricultural chemicals don’t necessarily find their way to your skin, but they do destroy fertile topsoil and pollute public waterways. And they’re unsafe for those working in the field.

Over $2.5 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on conventional cotton fields around the world each year. Many farmers employ the most hazardous pesticides on the market, including organophosphates and carbamate pesticides, and to blame for more than 80% of pesticide poisonings in the US annually. In a 2002 study of pesticides and illness in California, cotton ranked 3rd among all crops. What's more, cottonseed is used in a variety of animal feed and food products for human consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human and animal carcinogens.

Many countries have banned genetically modified crops of late, some of which are known to exacerbate the destruction of valuable topsoil since the franken-plants can withstand the heaviest chemical treatments against weeds and insects. For farmers in India and the U.S., over 90% of the cotton produced is considered non-organic GMO.

Roots of an Empire

High school history is good at teaching pro-government and -industrial viewpoints. The textbooks try to be objective and politically correct, but in doing so, lacks the heart and emotions of real world experiences. Often downplayed in the classroom is the role black bodies played in creating vast industrial fortunes for the Western world to play with as it prospered.

Chris Columbus' big mistake set off a centuries long European landgrab that took full advantage of Native American territories, the world would soon witness the largest forced migration in history via the transatlantic slave trade between the U.S., West Africa and Europe. America’s meteoric rise in scale – politically and economically – is due in large part to its geography and resources.

But a critical piece in that puzzle is extracting those resources cheaply so they can be transported and made into finished products. In the capitalist realm, the largest profits means minimizing dollars spent on everything, including workers. The labor was so cheap in fact, that Sven Beckert writes in his book Empire of Cotton, just prior to the Civil War, the U.S. slave system produced raw cotton to shape fashions in the industrializing world, composing 92% of Russia’s cotton products, 90% of French and 77% of British.

Black and white photo of 2 young and 5 adult cotton field hands in a cotton field

By 1860, the American South grew 60% of the world’s cotton and became one of the wealthiest areas per capita in the entire world for the next few years. Needless to say, the cost to build our nation’s vast wealth was anything but a bargain. Before America grew by war, it was doubling-down on white gold.

This infamous economic revolution holds massive significance in our history. Harvard professor of African studies and history Walter Johnson told the New York Times, “It is not simply that the labor of enslaved people underwrote 19th-century capitalism. Enslaved people were the capital: four million people worth at least $3 billion in 1860, which was more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories in the United States combined.”

Today, nearly half of the fiber used to make clothes and other textiles worldwide comes from cotton, making up close to 90% of all natural fiber crops. American cotton and cottonseed production rests at a comfortable $5 billion farm value, and annual business revenue stimulated by cotton in the U.S. economy exceeds $100 billion. Cotton was and continues to be a crucial cash crop in the world and domestic economy, hence the consistent subsidy dollars from the USDA piggy bank. And besides tremendous efforts to amass market shares of sugar, iron ore, and oil over the last century, cotton is a plant with a long and brutal history of worker exploitation and widespread dehumanization.

From White Gold to Fool’s Gold

Conventional cotton farming is one of the single largest water and toxic chemical consumers in the apparel supply chain. Growing these thirsty plants requires anywhere from 700 to 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single cotton T-shirt, depending on irrigation needs. The World Bank reports that 80 countries now have water shortages, and more disturbingly, the World Health Organization has reported that a billion people lack enough water to simply meet their basic needs.

Over 70% of global cotton harvest comes from areas under irrigation and cotton is one of the thirstiest crops a farmer can plant. In our era of climate flux, as rampant drought inflicts wounds here in California, as freshwater dwindles worldwide, the conversation about resources and alternatives will become a little buzzworthy in the media.

Cost of Cotton Farming in Uzbekistan, from The Environmental Justice Foundation

A lack of sustainable agriculture poses one of the largest threats to our planet and our health today. Agriculture is the largest industry in the world: It wastes 60% of the water it uses each year, almost three-quarters of the world’s accessible freshwater. Diversion of water and its pollution by cotton growing has had severe impacts on major ecosystems, like the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus Basin in Pakistan and Australia's Murray-Darling River.

The running alliance between chemical companies and agriculture is decades old, but we see it daily in the ongoing, fierce conversation about GMOs and labeling in this country. And as citizens continue to discover, plenty of money is exchanging hands to ensure dirty industry secrets are kept as much. Whether it’s a confusing network of outsourced sub-contracts, bloated advertising campaigns about bettering the supply chain or a 1% charitable donation to your favorite environmental group, as a shopper, it’s easy to feel trapped in a looped ball-and-cups carnival game.

Beginning in the 1970s, America’s electronic, automotive and textile industries began finding a home across the Pacific in Asia where cheap labor ruled, but the sweatshops, child labor and toxic conditions are now more evident than many shoppers like to admit. This shift initially meant only the lowest quality items would be made overseas, while most everything else could be made in North America. Less than 30 years later, nearly every textile mill in the U.S. would be gone.

A mountain of cotton with a smiling woman carrying a load to drop on top
We all know China has become the manufacturing juggernaut in the world today, turning much of the world's raw cotton into the T-shirt and jeans you could be wearing as you read this. And it’s doing so more or less the way Europe and the U.S. did in previous centuries, by prioritizing natural resources, colonizing new lands and exploiting millions of workers in the process.

The good news? In light of rising labor costs in China and a broadening consumer base interested in clothing with ethics and quality, there’s been a quiet resurgence of textile manufacturing in this country over the last few years. If trends continue, studies suggest that for many industries, the cost of outsourcing to China will soon be equal to the cost of manufacturing within American borders.

There’s always the better cotton option by going organic. Put simply, that means it's grown without the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, instead replacing them with natural composts and better crop rotation, with weeds removed by hand or basic machinery. According to the 2011 Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Farm and Fiber Report, organic cotton production hovered around 1% of global cotton production, with the market making a big jump in 2014 at 14% growth in the U.S. 

Still, cotton production is expected to quadruple by 2050. While many of textile manufacturing jobs feed poor families in developing nations, such observations hide from the coarse realities of the industry and oppose change for the better.


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+ Recreator seeks to broaden conversations about material culture by exploring quality hemp and organic products. Why? Because it’s important to protect the ecological systems on which we all depend.

+ Want to learn more about sustainable fashion? Read on: The Chemicals in Clothing

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