White as the driven snow – but tainted by its grubby past – this vital crop continues to be the most widely used natural fibre in the world
Cotton grows as white, fluffy fibres that surround the seeds of the cotton plant. If left to their own devices, these cellulose pods also help to spread the plant’s seeds. There are four commercially grown species, all of which are part of the Gossypium genus of flowering plants.
Cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop, but its seeds are also used to feed cattle. It is used in everything from clothing and footwear to medical supplies, including plasters.
All the major varieties of cotton were domesticated in antiquity. The earliest evidence of human use of cotton dates back to the Neolithic period – around 5000 BC.
Very few other resources are as closely tied to human history as cotton. The fabric was not only a driver for colonisation (it was cotton from India and West Africa that fed British industrial looms) but also for the slave trade, as North American plantations demanded labour. Today, cotton is still grown across Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Forced labour is still rife in cotton. In one of the world’s largest organised forced labour systems, the state of Uzbekistan, one of the top global cotton exporters, mobilises more than 1m people for the annual harvest – until 2012 that included children.
The biggest producers of cotton in 2017-2018 were India (6,205 tonnes), China (5,987 tonnes) and the US (4,555 tonnes), with total world production estimated at around 25m tonnes (worth $12bn).
Cotton is a thirsty plant. The WWF estimates it takes 20,000l of water to produce 1kg of cotton. Cultivation also uses a lot of fertiliser and pesticides, which impacts on biodiversity and the health of farmers.
Brands are becoming more aware of the impact of cotton production. A number of initiatives are aiming to improve the sustainability of their supplies. However, in 2016, less than 20% of cotton output was verified sustainable.
What they say
“You dare not make war upon cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king.”
James H Hammond, Senator for the cotton-rich state of South Carolina, in 1858 during the build-up to the civil war
“It is crucial for Uzbekistan’s international partners to urge the government to allow all involuntary workers to return from the fields without penalty… and to monitor and publicly report on findings.”
Umida Niyazova, Director, Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights
“Switching to organic cotton supports a way of farming that directly benefits both the local and global environment… [it] has been proven to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use.”
Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association
The history of cotton has shaped both the global economy and the societies in which we live in more ways than perhaps any other commodity. However, despite its ubiquity – it still accounts for around half of textile production – its social and environmental impact are still only starting to gain widespread traction among manufacturers. Around 250m people worldwide are dependent on the crop for their livelihoods, but much of that production still remains unethical and unsustainable. The work is starting, but as WWF warns: “Bringing cotton production in line with even minimally acceptable environmental standards is a challenging task.”