Killer Cotton


The devastating impact of the cotton supply chain that dominates much of the textiles industry is often brushed under the carpet. Luxury or mass-market, this natural fibre has been exploited to the point that not only the environment is permanently damaged, but the people and animals that keep the industry going are physically and mentally deteriorating too. 

This article is inspired by a lecture by Dr Sue Thomas of Heriot Watt University. You can watch her TEDx talk about ethics in the fashion industry .

First up, how does a fluffy little plant in a faraway field end up as a crisp white shirt, perhaps oversized and worn layered under a cropped sweater or corset for SS17? It starts with a seed, and it ends with a landfill site, and there are problems at every stage of the life cycle, from sexism, sizeism and racism, to animal rights and environmental impact.

Growing and Harvesting

Pesticides and fertilisers don't just affect the crop in question. Now that mechanical vehicles spray vast quantities of these chemicals over unimaginably huge expanses of land, they are spreading to water supplies and nearby fields. 

Animal and human cruelty is also a massive factor in the collecting of cotton crops. In many societies, unregulated child labour is utilised, or working people, including doctors and teachers, are forced to take unpaid leave to help out during harvest season. Where modern machinery isn't available large livestock like oxen or cattle are used to drag heavy combine harvesters and do not receive proper veterinary treatment.

Fibre Processing

In the cleaning of cotton (called ginning but nothing to do with gin), spinning it into yarns and weaving, knitting or felting it into fabrics, waste products are a huge issue. From large quantities of dust and dirt being inhaled by unprotected workers leading to lung problems, to toxic carcinogens like 

Formaldehyde (which FYI is also used to preserve dead bodies...) as well as dyes and treatments being washed away into rivers and lakes, threatening these ecosystems. All processing of cotton requires vast quantities of water, particularly the dying of denim jeans. Fashion is a thirsty business.

Garment Production

Worker rights are simply not protected or valued in the manufacturing phase of the fashion supply chain, whether its cotton or silk. Factory workers work long unsociable hours without overtime pay or paid holidays, spend time in unsafe and insecure buildings filled with health hazards, are forbidden to form unions or strike, and receive salaries that don't even cover their own personal expenses, let alone support their family.

One of the most alarming consequences of the cotton supply chain has been the degradation of the Aral Sea Basin. This lake, once one of the world's largest, completely dried up between 2000 and 2014, due to the irresponsible irrigation of water for cotton crops. 

Find out more here


Here are some quick statistics about the cotton industry:

  • 47% of chemicals used in cotton production are known human carcinogens.

  • 10 tonnes of water can be used on cotton to make just one pair of denim jeans.

  • 95% of cotton garments that go to landfill could be recycled.

  • Over 8 million acres of land in the US alone is used for cotton farming. This is land that could be used to grow fresh produce for the global food shortage.

  • The huge amounts of pesticides used to grow cotton cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year and a million hospitalisations.

The good news: 

  • Cotton is a natural product therefore it is biodegradable. The average cotton garment can take as little as 6 months to completely biodegrade if correctly recycled. In comparison, a nylon or polyester garment can take more than 50 years.

  • Quality of production varies greatly, and it is not always to do with brand names, whether its fine Egyptian Pima cotton or standard American Cotton, whether its Prada or Primark. Do you research, and look for transparency in the the supply chain.

  • 42% of fashion brands use, or aim to use, organic cotton in their products.

  • There are eco-friendly alternatives available as well as organic versions of cotton. Take for instance Lyocell, a sustainable man-made textile. Or emerging waste-free fabrics like Pinatex (pineapple leather)!

Overall, many of the problems in the cotton supply chain for the fashion industry can be traced back to long-term, systematic issues with the global politics and western culture. If the rules were more efficiently regulated and there were more serious consequences for corruption, perhaps developing countries would no longer produce cotton for developed countries that is toxic an damaging to the environment and human health. If fashion followers and retailers decided to value quality over quantity and started paying more for their consumer products, perhaps workers throughout the supply chain would receive fair wages and fair treatment. The fashion business is about supply and demand. So long as we keep demanding cheaper and cheaper garments faster and faster, these dangers within the textile life cycle will continue.


Recommended reading: 

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade by Pietra Rivoli

Where Underpants Come From - From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China by Joe Bennett