by Cedar Johnson
Imagine a world suddenly devoid of all cotton. Most of us would become half naked. Our laundry baskets would instantly get much lighter and our winter days much colder. That’s not all though. We might also miss diapers, bandages, tents, sails, shoes, painter’s canvases, cooking oil, medicines, and books!
And yet, when was the last time we stopped to think of where all this cotton comes from? Most of us probably haven’t given cotton production a thought since U.S. history class when we learned of the African slaves brought to cotton plantations and the inhumane conditions they suffered in order to grow cotton. But that was a couple hundred years ago. We’re more civilized than that now. Right?
Every year an estimated one million children (seven to twelve years old) work the cotton fields of Egypt at the hands of foremen who reportedly beat them. Children like them in India and Uzbekistan also work eleven to thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, for little or no pay.
The sad truth is that although we no longer allow slavery in our country, a recent study found that while most of the world’s cotton products are consumed by wealthy nations, 99 percent of cotton growers live in “unhealthy conditions.” So what exactly do they mean by unhealthy conditions? Many of us could easily point to unhealthy conditions in our own lives—maybe smog or second-hand smoke, or too much leftover Halloween candy beckoning from the top of the fridge. “Unhealthy conditions” doesn’t necessarily mean slavery at the hand of a ruthless foreman with a whip. Right?
In some cases it still does. Every year an estimated one million children (seven to twelve years old) work the cotton fields of Egypt at the hands of foremen who reportedly beat them. Children like them in India and Uzbekistan also work eleven to thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, for little or no pay. In fact, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, “seven of the top eight cotton producing nations have been documented as having widespread child labor in cotton production.”
It’s not necessarily always the big plantation owner model repeated either. Land-owning cotton farmers in developing nations are losing hope in the unfair markets that subsidize only wealthy countries. When they make a couple hundred dollars for their whole crop, they can’t afford to send their children anywhere but their fields.
The other big change in cotton production is the use of pesticides. The history and current injustices in cotton production would lead us to the logical conclusion that it is very hard to grow. So now it has become the most pesticide-intensive crop grown, utilizing the most dangerous chemicals on the market, most of which are banned in all developed countries, and some of which were created as toxic nerve agents during World War II.
It’s no wonder then that cotton laborers suffering from pesticide poisoning regularly report headaches, vomiting, tremors, lack of coordination, respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, seizures, twitches, and blurred vision. Long-term effects include impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depression, and confusion.
These are definitely unhealthy conditions.
But it’s not just quality of life being robbed; it’s often life itself. At least 20,000 deaths are reported from pesticide poisoning every year. It is estimated that 99 percent of those deaths occur in the developing world.
Known pesticide-related deaths that likely go unreported are often deaths of vulnerable children who may not even work the cotton fields but merely live close to them or innocently reuse the empty containers.
So why upset ourselves over these tragically unhealthy conditions bringing us cheap clothing? Why get so dramatic? Because I believe there is a deeply rooted sense of justice that lives in every one of us. Lack of awareness is the obstacle. There is a place in each of us that says, “That’s not right. Cheap cotton’s not worth innocent children being beaten and poisoned over it.”
And we are not helpless to do something about it. There are some simple solutions we can easily participate in to decrease the insatiable demand for more cotton. The first thing we can evaluate is whether or not we really need all the clothes in our closet and possibly recycle some. Second, we can ask ourselves whether we truly need new clothes or if choosing to buy recycled ones might be an acceptable solution. Finally, we can jump aboard the growing organic cotton movement, which is a trend that is actually saving lives.
While it’s not easy to grow cotton organically, it is life-giving hope to many in developing nations. Women in Mali were not able to farm before the organic movement, because men control the sale of pesticides and fertilizers.
Bandia Doumbia, a thirty-six-year-old mother of six, remembers a time before she started growing organic fair-trade cotton, when she did not have enough money to take her sick child to the hospital. “It was also difficult to get enough money for clothes. I couldn’t look after my family. I was very poor.”
Now, things have improved. “My children are in school, I get a good price for my cotton, and I’ve also learned a lot of skills. I have become very happy—so much so, that next year, I am going to grow a bigger crop.”1
That’s a pretty hopeful solution worth a few extra dollars next time we’re buying new sheets. So there really is a place for everyone in this solution, because it takes all kinds. I will humbly admit that those of us who subscribe to the solution of buying used clothes are dependent on others recycling their wearable clothes. I’m not a big contributor to the recycled clothes pool, my boys wear out clothes before they can pass them on to each other, but I have seen how the money we save buying used clothing can make organic cotton purchases possible.
We can actually save lives with our everyday choices without going naked.
1. “The desperate plight of Africa’s cotton farmers,” by Elizabeth Day, The Observer, November 13, 2010, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/14/mali-cotton-farmer-fair-trade.