Truth is, cotton manufacturing seems to have always been in the slave trade, paying tiny amounts of money to growers, makers and everyone else in between. So what is the impact on the environment and the makers when it comes to BCI, Fairtrade, GOTS or conventional cotton?
Cotton has always been a quietly controversial commodity. The exploitative business of cotton growing and manufacturing is not often associated with the modern t-shirt as we focus on the feel good factor of natural fibres. Consumers are generally unaware of the processes which are used to create clothes, including the harvesting of raw materials, manufacturing and labelling. Yet there is an important distinction, especially when it comes to cotton.
There are three types of commercial cotton, conventional, organic, and cotton approved by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Introduced in 2005, the Better Cotton Initiative aims specifically to provide training for farmers to adopt more sustainable practices, leading to ‘better cotton’, it’s more an idea for the future as opposed to better farming and fair farming for current cotton production.
So what’s the difference?
Conventional cotton, which is used in most garments, is usually sprayed with chemical pesticides which can have significant impacts on farmers and the environment. Additionally, conventional cotton can be grown with genetically modified seeds (GM). Whereas organic cotton prohibits the use of both GM seeds and the use of any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Instead, natural fertilisers such as compost and animal manure are often used in the growing season.
Etiko uses Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton from Chetna Organic in India. Chetna Organic aims to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in India through sustainable farming practices. The GOTS certification can only be awarded to entities who engage in organic practices in all stages of production, including harvesting raw materials, manufacturing and labelling. It can be seriously difficult for corporations to trace their supply chains all the way back to the cotton seed, but Etiko is committed to being accountable at every stage of production. Etiko only uses ethical materials, not only organic cotton, but hemp and sustainably sourced natural rubber.
As for the BCI’s policies, they sit somewhere in the middle. Whilst they do not enforce a ban on the use of pesticides, they do have a strict list of pesticides that are prohibited. This is an important distinction from organic cotton, as the impact of chemical pesticides is extremely harmful to both the natural environment and its people. Additionally, cotton approved by the BCI can be grown with GM seeds.
Why does it matter?
GM cotton seeds are significantly more expensive for farmers, often leading to extensive debts. Furthermore the seeds cannot be reused each season, therefore creating greater financial pressure for farmers. GM cotton seed related debt is a serious issue in India, and has a strong link to farmers committing suicide. For more reading, see: Failed promises: The rise and fall of GM cotton in India. As GM cotton seeds are banned in the production of organic cotton, farmers can replant seeds collected in the following season, making it a sustainable farming business helping lift people from poverty.
But what about the water used to grow cotton? According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes up to 2,700 litres of water to produce the conventional cotton needed to create a single t-shirt. In comparison, organic cotton uses approximately 88% less water. As these statistics suggest, conventional cotton uses significant amounts of water. Growing GM cotton requires even more, therefore making it harder to grow in rainfed areas. For this reason, conventional cotton is often grown with irrigation systems, whereas organic cotton doesn’t usually need irrigation when grown in monsoon climates like India, which is better for energy use and soil protection.
What about the makers?
It matters to Etiko that our clothing production has no degradation to the environment, while protecting the people who make our garments. That’s why Etiko will always be free from child and sweatshop labour. Our GOTS certification prohibits the use of child labour, and strives to ensure that all workers are awarded a fair wage for their work.
As consumers, we need to embrace the power and impact of our decisions, especially in the clothing and textile industry. Making sure you buy garments that are made from certified 100% organic cotton is the most environmentally sustainable option and carries the greatest positive social impact too. No plastic fibre content that ends up in landfill or in our oceans, no harsh chemicals that make people sick and the land toxic, just beautiful soft cotton on the skin made fairly.
If organic food, the environment and social justice are important to you make sure you shop fairtrade and organic for your clothes too.
Wear your values.