New Internationalist

Whatever happened to cotton?

Issue 399

Jim Thomas looks back from a brave new nanotech world at the fabric of history.

Dominic Bugatto
Dominic Bugatto

It was at her wedding in 2035 that Asha first began wondering about cloth. Her grandmother had given her an old-fashioned cotton sari and so they fell into conversation while fingering its brittle texture. Asha declared that she found the sari ‘beautiful in a retro sort of way’ but was struck by its impracticality: how easily it stained and how fragile it was. If it snagged on a nail it could tear as quickly as that other outdated material – paper. Her grandmother countered that cotton was the material of choice when she was a child and that the wealth of India was built on fabric like this – ‘and much of its poverty too’, she added ruefully. Somehow in the intervening generation cotton had just disappeared. The conversation passed to other topics, but when Asha later took out the wedding gift again she found herself asking the question: ‘Whatever happened to cotton?’

As an historian by training Asha knew that the disappearance of cotton had something to do with technology. She guessed, rightly, that it fell out of favour in the global commodity chaos that followed the introduction of nanotechnology in the first decade of the century. Nanotechnology, a set of techniques that rearrange matter on the tiniest scale of atoms and molecules, became one of the main drivers of the economy somewhere around 2010. By 2015 the trillion-dollar nano-industry was busy producing everything from computers to armaments and foodstuff – and also cloth: textiles were among the early stars of the nano-revolution.

Novel properties

By harnessing quantum physics and shuffling the atoms of the periodic table into new arrangements, nanotechnologists had made existing elements exhibit entirely novel properties. It seemed almost like alchemy. For example, they could design a gold nanoparticle (a particle only a few billionths of a metre in size) in such a way that it would turn purple, green or bright red, depending on the number of atoms used. This was more than a neat party trick. Once such nanogold entered mass production it quickly found uses in the paint, dyes and pigment industry and as a catalyst, pushing the already buoyant price of gold to record levels. Other commodities, however, lost out: nanosized fibres of carbon known as ‘carbon nanotubes’ could be produced that were 100 times stronger than steel, six times lighter and carried electricity more efficiently than copper wire. As Mitsubishi and IBM began to churn out cheap nanotubes by the ton, steelworkers and copper miners found themselves forced into early retirement.

Something similar had happened to around a billion workers in the global cotton industry. Digging into the archives from Internet 1.0, Asha learned that cotton was so common at the turn of the century that even the early nanofabrics were based on it. In 2002 a Texas company called Nano-tex began selling simple nano-coatings that would make cotton fibres ‘spill resistant’ – you could pour coffee on a pair of nano-treated jeans and it would bead up like mercury and roll off as if by magic. Nano-tex was quickly joined by DuPont, who created a similar no-spill effect using ‘nanoteflon’. These new nanofibres were licensed to several of the largest textile mills in Asia to make trousers and jeans for Lee, Dockers, Gap and Eddie Bauer, to name just a few. Nanotech quickly became the hottest topic in textiles – just as nylon, rayon and polyester had been half a century earlier. This spelled trouble ahead for cotton.

When seen at the nano-scale, cotton lint is simply a hollow tube of cellulose. It wasn’t long before nanotechnologists starting mimicking that structure with artificial alternatives. In 2002 Nano-tex launched a new way of wrapping cellulose around polyester fibres. This made them feel like cotton even though the fibres were synthetic. Meanwhile a German nanofibre company, Lenzing, introduced Tencel – a soft fabric whose nanofibres were made out of engineered cellulose. Tencel claimed to be ‘as soft as silk, strong as polyester, cool as linen, warm as wool and absorbent as cotton’. Made from cheap wood-pulp and sawdust, Tencel was marketed as an all-natural fibre. Suddenly cotton had real competition.

At that time nanotechnology was redefining what was possible with textiles. Silver nanoparticles were added to socks and later shirts to resist odours. They reduced the frequent washing of clothes that used to be necessary. Later nanofibres were designed to resist dirt directly by preventing it attaching to the fibres. Meanwhile, carbon nanofibres woven into kids’ clothes helped them wear the rough and tumble of the playground as though they were Kevlar – a trick first developed by the military for lighter armour.

Then came the so-called ‘smart fabrics’ – also largely developed in military labs. By 2003 Yoel Fink, a nanotechnologist at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, invented the colour-changing nanofibres that became so ubiquitous a decade later. Fink’s nanofibres changed colour with the addition of an electrical charge that either lengthened or shortened the fibres, altering the way they interacted with light. So a dull grey sweater could turn bright pink at the flick of a switch – no need to change outfits between the office and the dinner party. Others found that incorporating carbon nanofibres into fabric production allowed clothes to conduct an electrical charge, and so cell phones, computers and radio frequency ID chips were woven into nanotextiles as part of the burgeoning field of ‘wearable computing’.

E-cloth

Soon it was discovered that carbon nanofibres could be made to generate electricity as the wearer moved about. The scientists called these electricity-generating fabrics ‘piezzolelectric materials’ – everyone else called it E-cloth. Shortly after E-cloth hit the market, Apple bought Nike, Google bought Levis and the fashion and computing industries merged. Clothes finally became the interactive entertainment devices that we are familiar with today. While rich kids in the North pulled on the latest G-suit to play Nintendo, the 100 million poor cotton-growing families in the south were forced into a desperate search for new livelihoods.

One company that cheerily waved goodbye to cotton was DuPont, the chemical company whose post-war synthetic fibres had shaken the cotton industry once before. Besides being a nanotech leader, DuPont also pioneered the field of Synthetic Biology (Syn Bio). This extreme form of genetic engineering allowed scientists to assemble artificial viruses and bacteria out of synthetic DNA, as if building electronic circuits. They programmed these artificial microbes to churn out rubber, gasoline, ethanol and industrial precursors for fibres. In 2007 DuPont opened a $100 million Syn Bio factory in Lubbock, Texas, producing a new elastic fibre called Sonora. This showcased fibre production in which vats of synthetically designed bacteria fed on cheap and plentiful sugars could produce synthetic thread.

The synthetic biologists didn’t stop at Sonora. Through a process known as ‘metabolic pathway engineering’ geneticists had figured out the specific genetic instructions that the cotton plant uses to produce cotton lint. These were successfully transferred to bacteria around 2015, after which synthetic microbes could extrude cotton-like substances by the vat-load. Following that, only niche organic consumers were interested in the expensive option of irrigating and cultivating hectares of plants – not to mention paying for farm work. Bacteria ask for no wages at all.

Fabric of history

Meditating on the meshed threads of her grandmother’s sari, Asha saw how cotton’s history had been tightly woven into the ebb and flow of new technologies even before nanotech. India had first given the world cotton cloth but the colonial powers used technological innovations to steal it away. The invention of Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Cartwright’s power loom at the end of the 18th century allowed more efficient processing of cotton into cloth and so moved the heart of the cotton trade to Manchester, England. Meanwhile, in the New World, Eli Whitney revived the declining American cotton plantations when he invented the cotton gin in 1793 – a mechanical means of removing seeds from cotton bolls. Whitney transformed North American cotton production so that it could outcompete Indian production.

It seemed to Asha that each time cotton production and so-called ‘technological progress’ joined hands, the poor lost out. The shift in textile production to England and cultivation by slaves in the American South led to mass starvation in India, where cotton was still hand-picked and hand-woven. Not only were the Indian weavers contending with the factory system but the British also imposed harsh restrictions on the export of India’s finished cloth to protect their new industrialists. Rebellious weavers who attempted to evade these restrictions had their fingers smashed by the muskets of British soldiers. In a cruel twist of history, the rifles used to exact this punishment were of a type invented and patented by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney.

Years later, when the father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, talked about giving power back to the poor, he drew a link between technology, politics and cotton. ‘I think of the poor of India every time that I draw a thread on the wheel,’ he said, urging India to turn away from mechanized production and return to hand-spinning of cotton to revitalize its village economies. Mechanization of spinning, he claimed, ‘brought on slavery, pauperism and disappearance of the inimitable artistic talent which was once all expressed in the wonderful fabric of India which was the envy of the world.’

When Asha finally put on the sari she discovered that it was unexpectedly soft to wear. She liked how the breeze went through it, but mostly she liked the way its colours faded and how the dust settled and stayed on it. The new fabrics stayed clean and shiny perpetually. Like so many new technologies, they existed in an unsullied present with no stain of history. That felt wrong to Asha – it dishonoured the cotton weavers who’d had their fingers crushed by rifles, the American slaves who’d worked the plantations and the cotton families who’d lost their livelihood to nanofibres. When she was next scheduled to see her grandmother, Asha made a point of wearing the cotton sari. She wrapped it around her body like a remembrance ribbon and headed off. •

Jim Thomas works with the ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org ). See their The Potential Impacts of Nano-Scale Technologies on Commodity Markets: The Implications for Commodity Dependent Developing Countries.

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