Written by Mollie Knight

When you hear Fairtrade you probably think of an expensive chocolate bar or some bananas, but did you know that there’s a whole fortnight dedicated to celebrating and advocating for Fairtrade? From today the 21st February until the 6th March thousands of people will come together to show support and raise awareness for the farmers that grow our food, miners that mine our gold and people that grow the cotton for our clothes, all people that are often exposed to exploitation and poor (sometimes illegal) working conditions.


This year’s theme for Fairtrade Fortnight is “Choose The World You Want”. The world OWF chooses is one where there is justice for those working in the fashion industry. That’s why today we will be talking about cotton, and how Fairtrade might be the way to actually materialise the world we want to see. This topic was chosen by our lovely followers on Instagram (if you wanna get in on the next one, make sure to follow us here)


landscape photograph of cotton ball ready for harvest 
Source: Michael Bass-Deschenes

Cotton is one of the oldest commercial crops in the world and continues to be one of the most crucial resources today. Cotton has had some relationship to humans throughout history, it was discovered in archaeological expeditions in Mexico, it was instrumental in the building of industrial clothing factories in the north of England and, most notably, it was deeply entwined with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.


Now world cotton production is dominated by China, India and the US but it also is a vital source of income for countries in Africa too, with cotton making up 26.4% of Benin’s exports and 58.7% of Burkina Faso’s. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, 20 million tonnes of cotton are grown in a year. However, that staggering number doesn’t mean that the people who help transform the cotton seed into the T-shirt you’re wearing right now actually see much of the profits.

 Engraving of African American slaves using cotton gin
African Americans slaves using the First cotton-gin, 1790-1800, drawn by William L. Sheppard. Illustration in Harper's weekly, 1869 Dec. 18, p. 813.


Once the cotton is grown and picked, it goes through a process called ginning, which is where the seed is removed by huge machines. The remaining cotton, or lint, is put into bales to be sent to the textiles factory. At the spinning mill the lint is cleaned multiple times to make sure it is clean and high quality. This lint is then spun into yarn which gets woven into huge rolls of material, which can be dyed or left as is. These reems of fabric are then cut and sewn into garments, which are checked before being shipped out, ready to cross the oceans to end up on racks near you.


That sounds simple enough, right? Well actually at each stage of this process, workers are often subjected to exploitation by fashion brands in an effort to keep profits high and costs low. As the cost of production is going up each year, the value of cotton is actually going down. As Arun Ambatipudi who has worked in the cotton industry for many years explains:

“Cotton prices globally are very, very low. For the last 50 years the price of cotton has always been low and more importantly the price of production is going up year on year which means most of the time the cotton farmer is making a loss.” 


Not only this, but with the climate crisis leading to unpredictable weather patterns across the globe, agricultural workers are struggling to keep up with the demand for cotton during unseasonable weather periods. To compensate for this and increase crop yield, farmers often use toxic chemicals that are harmful to the ozone and to themselves.


During the ginning process, lots of little fibres of cotton fly up into the air which, if the workers aren’t provided with masks, can cause serious lung problems. The workers throughout the entire process work extremely long hours with very little pay. Also, the huge machinery that workers have to operate can be very dangerous in environments where safety measures aren’t put in place.


Safety measures go beyond ensuring machinery is safe to use – the buildings that the factories are located in need to be considered too. Famously, in 2013 the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, tragically killing 1,134 people and injuring more than 2,500. The building's owners ignored warnings to stop using the building after cracks had appeared the day before, and so the factory workers were ordered to come to work that fateful day. This is why many consider these deaths to have been preventable and the collapse as non-accidental. The true cost of fast-fashion here being people’s lives.


In a country where over £61.2 billion was spent on clothes in 2019, is it not outrageous that some workers don’t earn enough in one month to buy one of the cotton garments they are making? 


Fairtrade Foundation Logo 


That’s where buying Fairtrade comes in. In cotton production, Fairtrade ensures that the small holder cotton farms and workers are paid fairly. Fairtrade cushions the sharp falls in the global price of cotton with a baseline that the price cannot drop below, which in turn gives agricultural workers financial stability. Also, by providing a predictable income, farmers are less inclined to use harmful chemicals to increase their  crop yield, which helps prevent some of the environmental impacts of industrial farming – win, win! In the textile factory, Fairtrade means that all of the workers have to be made aware of their rights, work for functioning trade unions and achieve a living wage.


You might not think that you have power as an individual, but you have the power to make big change with the change in your wallet. By buying Fairtrade or supporting Fairtrade brands, you are showing that fair treatment of workers is something that is important to you. The more companies that buy into Fairtrade, the more workers that are supported and the more change we will see across the world. It is also important to continue to put pressure on brands to stop exploiting workers (more about this on our blog post here - especially as unions in Bangladesh are warning that the policies introduced after the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse are slowly being watered down, leaving workers, once again, under threat. Next time you’re shopping why not try opting for the Fairtrade option? You could write to your favourite clothing brand saying you’d love to see more Fairtrade cotton pieces or you can tell your friends to boycott brands that actively support the exploitation of workers. You really have so much potential to incite change!


So, what world will you choose?



Unravelling the Thread | The Story of Fairtrade Cotton 

21 February, 2022 — Mollie Knight

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