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Cotton: A Capsule History Part I

In our current moment, cotton still reigns supreme, used in upwards of 40% of all global textiles produced. This series of 3 blog posts on the history and ways of viewing cotton will explore the fabric’s impact on our present in multiple modes, through issues of sustainability, the global textile trade, and contemporary reactions to this fiber’s legacy, in the hopes of providing a resource for deeper discussion about a fabric deeply ingrained into our daily lives.

 It is certainly surprising, at first glance, that a fiber of the past with such a dark and violent history should remain a dominant mode of textile and clothing production in the present. Cotton is perhaps the crop most deeply associated with American slavery, almost single-handedly fueling and enriching the South’s plantation system. The rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the Deep South after the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased the United States’ demand for slave labor — and this was only one of moves made by the West when seeking cheap labour and high production quantities when it comes to cotton. Today, in search of the same unsustainable and inhumane goal, the majority of cotton production supplying to massive Western markets has moved to the Global Southeast with devastating effects for farmers and workers in these regions. But, then again, this should not be at all surprising.

Cotton has always been deeply ingrained in the structuring of social hierarchies and economic power structures. It comes as no shock that we currently are reckoning with the legacy of cotton on two main fronts: labor and sustainability practices. 

The case for rethinking the global textiles system, starting with the production and the making of clothing, must involve a reconsideration of the production of cotton. Globally, the production of cotton alone accounts for almost 7% of all employment in some low-income countries. Today’s textile system uses large amounts of resources, and most of those remain non-renewable, across the many regions to which the crop is not indigenous, but profitable, to grow. Specifically, the growing cotton requires high volumes of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as significant volumes of water. Additionally, many of the key countries, including China, India, the US, Pakistan, and Turkey, are under high water stress. Not only in our current moment do these kinds of unsustainable practices harm the state of the planet, but they also harm those who are forced to work at the far and disenfranchised end of this detrimental system — the workers, the same group for whom historical cotton production in the United States came at the cost of their lives and freedoms. 

Uzbek students picked cotton in 2001. Today, the government drafts about a million people to work as pickers at harvest time.
Uzbek students picked cotton in 2001. Today, the government drafts about a million people to work as pickers at harvest time. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press.

Chances are the shirt or pants or socks you are wearing are made out of cotton, but, while a century ago that shirt would likely have been sewn in a shop in New York from cotton grown in the American South,today it is probably made of cotton grown in China, India, Uzbekistan, or Senegal, spun and woven in China, Turkey, or Pakistan, and then manufactured in a place like Bangladesh or Vietnam. The centers of growing have shifted in parallel with the shift in manufacturing. Some nations have policies in place to force farmers to produce cotton, despite its often devastating environmental and financial consequences. Uzbekistan, for instance, continues to force its farming population to grow cotton despite the fact that the need to irrigate its drylands has essentially drained the Aral Sea and turned much of the country into salt flats. Likewise, many Tajik cotton farmers are locked in cycles of debt and forced production, remaining powerless against the sociopolitical and economic structures of demand. For most farmers and workers, cotton is far from the optimistically marketed “fabric of our lives” touted by the forces of American industry.

And as the West turned away from economic forms of manual industry and thus exported the cotton and textile economy abroad to these regions, this significant geographic shift prescribed the next phase of global capitalism. It has trapped the farming and labor practices of the textile industry into a colonial legacy — in abuses of power, underdevelopment, and at the petty will of Western market forces and demand.

With current trends, the negative impacts of the industry will be potentially catastrophic on both a human and an environmental scale. But there are a number of individuals and movements afoot attempting to provide alternative visions for the future of cotton, providing ways to reimagine the power relations of cotton production and pollution.

Brown cotton growing at Viriditas Farm. (Photo © Sally Fox)

One such ray of light is Fibershed, a collective developing regional fiber systems that rebuild soil and protect the health of the biosphere. Sally Fox, a major part of Fibershed’s activist movement, is reinventing cotton by placing it in part of the broader California agricultural system and looking back to cotton’s ancient roots. Fox has been looking into naturally colored cotton, the ancient and naturally pest resistant varieties that come in shades of greens and browns straight out of the Earth. Fox’s movement into naturally-colored cotton comes after her learning of the dangers of synthetic dyes so often used in commercial cotton production and manufacture — how these dyes can cause brain damage to the worker and wreak havoc on the environment. Naturally colored cottons are not new; they had long been cultivated in Central America before European invasion, but the fibers of these cottons tend to be significantly shorter, which poses a major problem for most Western industrial spinners and machinery. Fox succeeded in improving the quality of these fibers against these unlikely odds, and her company, Natural Colors, became the leader in naturally colored cotton in the 1990s, and has received awards by the U.N. for its efforts towards sustainability.

Likewise, the “Cotton For Life” initiative, a partnership between Filmar Nile Textile and the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Education, aims to develop and apply environmental and labour protocols to sustain the Egyptian cotton industry, starting from its cultivation right up to the end product. This initiative looks to the cultivation of organic long staple cotton and the creation of a socially viable cotton value chain by growing organic long staple cotton and providing technical support to Egyptian farmers as part of the Egyptian Cotton Project. Cotton For Life has been collaborating with UNIDO (the United Nations Industrial Development Organization) since 2017 to strengthen and extend its commitment to sustainability.

But growers concerned with the ethics of contemporary cotton production — who will be elaborated upon in the third blog post in this series — often find themselves in a horrible conundrum. As Sally Fields states, the industry has shifted so much even in the last 20 years, cutting costs at the price of social and environmental impacts and putting ethical growers like Fox out of business.

“From Fox’s perspective: ‘They switched to buying their textile products from places that poured waste straight out into the waterways. Poisoning all living beings downstream. And stopped buying from countries that had worker safety measures in place as well. We had these problems solved. But our reward was to be put out of business by the brands we once supplied.’” 

And such a dynamic, such a double-bind between the forces of the textile market and the forces of humanitarian activism, in the world of cotton is undyingly persistent. To answer any question of why we have worked our way into this moment so in need of creative solutions and a changing value system, we must look to the past. There will be another post from me — a capsule history of commercial cotton production — to further these questions and, hopefully, find ways to propose paths forward.

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton : A Global History. Vol. First Vintage Books edition. New York: Vintage, 2015.

Chhabra, Esha. “California Cotton Fields: Sally Fox Reinvented Cotton — by Going Back to Its Roots – Fibershed.” 

“Consumption: How We Buy, Exploit and Reuse.” The New York Times.

“Cottonforlife: Fit for Sustainable Future.”

Crecelius, Kohl. “What Can We Do to Stop the Damage of Fast Fashion?” Fast Company, February 8, 2019.

Turner, Jane. “The Ethics of Cotton Production.” Ethical Consumer, April 9, 2018.


History & Research