New Internationalist

Cotton: peril and promise

Issue 399

Gentle and breathable to wear; harsh and suffocating to work with. Richard Swift unpicks the world’s favourite fabric.

Atul Loke / Panos Pictures
Spinning cotton, spinning money – worker checking machinery in an Indian textile factory. Atul Loke / Panos Pictures

If you want to make money from cotton, best to stay well away from it. Historically, that’s how it has always been.

Take the big planters of the US South, who cooled their heels in old New Orleans or perched up in their genteel Natchez mansions on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Not for them the snake- and bug-infested bottomlands where their slaves and overseers worked the fields.

Similarly, the shareholders of the British East India Company stayed well away from the Indian villages which first produced the handloom fabrics that took Europe by storm, followed by the raw cotton that fuelled the fledgling Lancashire textile industry.

Granted, there was a brief period when entrepreneurs like the Lancashire-based Sir Richard Arkwright (Britain) or the Boston Brahmin, Francis Cabot Lowell (US), pioneered a factory system based on textiles and were intimately involved with creating the dreary rhythms of factory life.

But their sumptuous dwellings were far away from the grim slums of Manchester and the like, where their textile workers were warehoused. Certainly the colonial officialdom of the British, Portuguese and French empires, whose coercive taxation policies forced Africans to grow the ‘white gold’, had very little direct contact.

If anything, the distance between ‘working cotton’ and those who profit from it has grown even greater in our own time. For traders in ‘futures’ who speculate on the international market, cotton is little more than an abstract part of a profit-and-loss equation.

Although the corporate farmers who dominate Big Cotton in the US are still theoretically ‘on the land’, their relationship with the crop is mediated by massive machinery and hi-tech production methods. On the more advanced farms, fixed-wing aircraft produce digital scans that can customize the needs of each plant for fertilizer, insecticide and growth hormones. These are then delivered to each individual plant by agricultural machinery carrying on-board computing capacity.

Sounds good, but makes for expensive cotton that without US Department of Agriculture subsidies would have a hard time competing with African and Indian smallholders. The ‘brands’ which now sell us our cotton clothing have little or nothing to do with its manufacture. That is done on contract far away – mostly in places like China, Bangladesh and India – where wages are low and working conditions largely unregulated. The people who own and run these new satanic mills are euphemistically called ‘suppliers’. But what happens in the fire-plagued ‘three-floor-factories’ of Chinese free trade zones (one floor: storage; one floor: production; one floor: workers’ accommodation) is well below the radar of the average Wal-Mart customer. As they say: ‘Always Low Prices’.

You can see the appeal of not getting too close. Working in the textile industry has never been a lot of fun. And, for a scrawny old shrub, cotton is pretty demanding. It requires a long growing season, plenty of rain to get it going (three months or so), then a lot of heat. After that there needs to be a period of very dry weather for the harvesting to take place. It’s a lot of hard, often backbreaking work under a blistering sun, particularly when you come to the cotton-picking stage. Then there is the disappointment once you get your cotton to the marketplace and, often as not, find your hard work poorly rewarded. It’s always ‘the middleman’ – the broker, the government agent, the moneylender, the buyer from the factory – who seems to make out best. The Blues and cotton just seem to go naturally together as in Charlie Patton’s Mississippi Bol Weevil Blues:

‘Well, the Merchant got half the cotton, The Bol Weevils got the rest. Didn’t leave the poor farmer’s wife But one old cotton dress, And it’s full of holes, all full of holes.’

All the attempts to make cotton friendlier seem to have ended up just antagonizing it. In recent years two waves of industrial agriculture have sought to ‘revolutionize’ production. The Green Revolution wave brought in hybrid varieties that needed lots of water and agro-chemicals. In some places yields were better for a while, but the chemicals were too expensive and poisoned everything – the soil, the water, the cotton, the farmers themselves.

Now the next wave has arrived: genetically modified cotton. Just change one gene and all your problems vanish in a puff of smoke. But, for lots of farmers in India at least, it isn’t turning out that way.

While the new BT cotton, as it is called, depends less on agrochemicals, it needs more water. The money that poor farmers used to spend on the pesticides now must be spent on buying new ‘miracle’ seeds. And while yields have been okay in some places, they tend to be a lot less dependable in conditions of rain-fed as opposed to irrigated agriculture. And irrigation has its limits, when agriculture is based on ‘mining’ otherwise renewable resources like water and soil.

Over the next few decades both the US and India (the world’s second- and third-largest cotton producers) face seriously depleting water aquifers. The irony is that hardier, more environmentally friendly types of cotton have been displaced by long-staple, high-yield varieties considered more suitable for industrial textile production.

Still, for all the pain and misery, there is something about cotton that appeals – and not just to consumers, who love the feel of the ‘breathable’ fabric against their skin. Despite all the heartbreak, cotton farmers persist in the cycle of planting, tending and harvesting that keeps millions on the margins of the cash economy. Some 99 per cent of cotton farmers now live in the Global South – two-thirds in India and China – making cotton very definitely a poor person’s crop.

Champion of cotton

Demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s. Homespun, it used also to be the mainstay of poor people’s wardrobes. But that has changed. The bulk of cotton is now consumed in Europe and North America and other parts of the industrial world. Now, in most years, there is a glut on the world cotton market, with reserve stockpiles and slumping prices.

When I was researching this issue I had the chance to meet the colourful farmers’ leader Vijay Jawandhia in his home in Ramnagar, in the eastern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra. I was in line just ahead of a whole village of cotton farmers who had come to consult.

Jawandhia was generous with both his time and his views. I quickly realized I was dealing with a formidable intellect, quite comfortable jumping from Marx’s theory of value based on labour, to that of Rosa Luxemburg based on resources, to the plight of Indian smallholders. He estimates that just one per cent of the price of a cotton shirt bought in the West ends up in the hands of the farmer. The textile worker who made the shirt doesn’t fare much better. Jawandhia points to the cotton shirt I am wearing and gesticulates dramatically as he asks the obvious question: where does the rest of that money go?

Jawandhia is all too familiar with the hardships faced by cotton farmers in the Global South. Still, he is a champion of cotton. He compares it favourably to oil-based artificial fabrics. ‘The petroleum source is going to the toilet. Whereas the source of cotton is sun-energy.’ He also champions the employment associated with cotton as opposed to artificial fibres. ‘For every bale of artificial fibres there is work for 9 people; every bale of cotton provides work for 30.’ He even sees a place for cotton waste, which can be recycled into paper ‘to help with the tree shortage or to make charcoal for fuel’.

People around the world will be wearing cotton for some time to come. But if it is to fulfil any of the promise Jawandhia sees in it, it must start to reward the farmers and textile workers who have intimate contact with it, rather than just those who have always drained arms-length profit from it. And we also need to make sure we don’t turn it from a sustainable crop to an unsustainable monoculture, dependent on agrochemicals and gene-manipulation. If we are kinder to it, maybe it will be kinder to us. •

    • With thanks to Stephen Yafa’s excellent Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, Penguin, 2005.

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