If the thought of toiling sweatshop workers gives you pause when you pull on your favorite cotton T-shirt, here’s some comforting news: Fair trade cotton is a nascent but growing industry. While there aren’t a lot of U.S. retailers supporting it, it’s gaining a foothold in the United Kingdom, and of course, you can order clothing made with fair trade certified cotton online.
Cotton is a tricky one for the socially and environmentally conscious. The textile industry as a whole has a reputation for exploiting workers. Add to that the fact that in countries where harvesting is still done by hand, rather than by machine, it’s a nasty, difficult process. Cotton is a chemically intensive crop, using vast amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides. According to Pesticide Action Network North America, cotton producers account for more than 10 percent of the pesticides and almost 25 percent of the insecticides used worldwide, often choosing the most dangerous of the chemicals. Besides posing a serious health hazard to the workers handling the cotton, those chemicals also end up in the local water supply, endangering the rest of the community and area wildlife.
Given the heavy chemical use in conventional cotton harvesting, organic conversion generally results in a drop in cotton production, so it’s not realistic to set up a fair trade agreement in which economically strapped farmers immediately go organic. Instead, according to the Fairtrade Foundation, certification means that farmers are working on switching to safer fertilizers and integrated pest management. In addition, a fair trade wage gives them a chance to try more sustainable crops when cotton is not in season, and perhaps eventually quit farming cotton altogether. Certified cotton farmers in Mali are increasing their maize production, while others are planting fruit trees as an alternative source of income. Besides a better life for the workers, there’s a big-picture benefit: Given that it takes 100 gallons of water to produce a pound of cotton, switching to more sustainable crops is a greater win for the environment than just converting to organic production.
So should you support fair trade cotton, insist on organic or just look for alternatives to cotton altogether? Let your conscience be your guide. But if you back the fair trade farmers, you might be doing all three in the long run.
Heather L. Jones is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Davis, Calif.