By Jo Salter, Founder Where Does It Come From? – Kind Clothes that Tell Tales

time to cotton on
Hand Picking of organic cotton at Gram Sewa Mandal Co-operative (photo by Jitendra Kumar)

You’ve probably heard negative things about cotton.  It’s often referred to as ‘the dirty crop’ or ‘the thirsty crop’ because of the large amounts of chemical pesticides and water used to grow and process it.  Sustainably speaking, it’s usually pitched as a bit of a no no.

Example – Remember the iconic image of Stacey Dooley standing in the dust bed of what used to be the Aral Sea, in her documentary ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’?  The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world but it has all but dried up now.  The water was diverted over the last 80 years or so to water the cotton fields of the former soviet regions, including those that are now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

So cotton gets a bad press and much of it is deserved. But it’s not actually the crop itself that’s the problem – it’s down to how we’ve changed the ways that we cultivate, process and use cotton over the past couple of centuries.  This includes the seeds we plant, the farming techniques, how we turn the little cotton balls into fabric and even how we dispose of garments at the end of their life.  it’s the human species that has chosen the non-sustainable options that are now showing their true colours – in the damage they’re doing to our planet.

Past mass cultivation making way for a return to native seed varieties

time to cotton on
Rainfed organic cotton tunic and shirt by Where Does It Come From? (photo by Sarah Rainbright)

I’m not an agriculturist but what I’ve learned over the past few years through working on sustainable cotton sourcing has left me reeling. As a species we’ve made a series of mistakes with cotton production, and then we’ve tried to fix them without actually looking back to where we started from.

Cotton has a long and rich history.  Cotton fragments have been unearthed at archaeological sites all over the world, reckoned to date back thousands of years. Cotton had a significant role to play in slavery, the American civil war, the industrial revolution and Indian independence from the British Empire.  Now its primary role has become fast fashion – ever increasing mass-production, a brief window of use and then a trip to landfill.

When some bright spark first realised that cotton balls could be ginned (deseeded and cleaned) then spun and woven into cloth, the cotton that was growing would have been from a seed variety native to that particular location.  That seed would have ‘natural’ affinity to its geography, a resilience developed over time – so that it is more resistant to the bugs and the weather patterns of the area. 

Cultivation of cotton grew in many locations but especially Asia, gradually moving into Egypt and then the United States.  Looking for ever increasing cotton yields meant that cotton seeds were imported across the world, often to places where they did not suit the geography.  Water and pesticides were used to increase the amount produced and to avoid insect blights.  In recent years genetic modification has also been introduced to seed varieties to increase yield even more and, in theory, to reduce the need for added chemicals.

Mass Cotton Production – It’s In The Genes

The appliance of science has led to genetically modified seed, often called GM or BT cotton, ‘trained’ to require less pesticides and produce higher yields.  These new seeds are owned by corporations such as Monsanto.  A by-product, of course, is that farmers are encouraged to buy the new varieties, being told that their requirement for expensive pesticides will be reduced or eliminated. Unfortunately, and it’s no co-incidence, the farmers have to buy new seeds every year, rather than just keeping some back from the previous year’s crop as was done traditionally.

Over time the bugs became resistant to the GM seed so the farmers needed to use pesticides anyway – an unplanned cost on top of the expensive recurring seed price.  Many cotton farmers, already in financial difficulties, were forced into unrecoverable amounts of debt and took the ultimate way out.  Just google ‘farmer suicides in India’ to find out more, but brace yourself for some disturbing images.

In India in particular a new direction has been led by organic organisations and the government, rolling back the reliance on GM cotton and returning to native varieties such as Kala and Desi cotton varieties.

A Return to Native Seeds and Traditional Production

cotton balls
Cotton pod (photo by Khamir)

There’s now a strong movement in more ethically focused clothing brands to use organic cotton and, as awareness grows, to use native cotton varieties that are fed by the rain and require little or no pesticides.  At Where Does It Come From?, a brand I founded in 2013, we’ve been working with native cotton for many years, including in productions for retail and for enlightened business customers such as SAP.  In our most recent production, a collaboration with Khadi London, we have created face masks from 100% organic native cotton – an alternative to the disposable, high plastic option.  There are a growing number of brands in the UK using this type of cotton, including Project Pico for their cotton underwear.

This move to more natural seeds has other knock on effects too – a greater appreciation of artisanal production processes such as hand weaving and block printing.  Some more traditional cloths offer social and environmental benefits too, such as Khadi, which helps build local communities and provide rural, skilled livelihoods.

It’s clear that there is a balance that must be made.  People need clothes but our environment needs help.  At the moment the clothing requirements argument has tilted the scales away from the environmental needs, leading to the damage which is becoming all too clear.  Now it’s time to consider how the need for clothes can be met in a more sustainable way – options must include drastic reductions in the amount of clothing created as well as choosing better options in materials and processes.

Let’s start with the cotton in our clothes.  It’s time for the return of the native.