Friday 2 March 2012

The Price Of Cotton

Sometimes, thinking ethically about a subject means that you end up asking some uncomfortable questions. Questions that don't have the answer you'd like to see.

Take the vexed subject of cotton. We're seeing more clothing that has been made with ethically produced, organic cotton. But the fact remains that cotton itself is an environmental time bomb.

Consider. Cotton uses over a third of available arable land worldwide, larger than food or fuel crops. Although organic cotton is on the rise, the vast majority of the fibre is grown using pesticides and fertilisers that are anything but environmentally friendly.

And we haven't even thought about the impact of global warming. Flash floods in Pakistan, India and Australia last year have led to the price of cotton going through the roof. It's a high-paying crop. It always has been. But now everyone is fighting to get on the bandwagon. Farmers have rushed to grow cotton at the expense of their food crops, leading to an abundance. The price that farmers get for their cotton is likely to drop quickly and massively. They will therefore drop a crop that is troublesome to grow in favour of food and fuel. The knock on effect for the fashion trade is likely to be much more expensive cotton, and some very uncomfortable decisions are going to have to be made.

Pamela Ravasio, a specialist in sustainable fashion business practices has spelled out what those choices might be in an article for The Guardian. She says:
"First, (manufacturers will) squeeze their sup­pli­ers' mar­gins. In other words, man­u­fac­tur­ers rather than retail­ers, will be required to absorb raw mate­r­i­al price increas­es. In turn, sup­pli­ers may com­pen­sate by reduc­ing salaries paid to work­ers (or reduce staff and increase hours). Given that numer­ous NGOs are sen­si­tised to this dan­ger, it will not take long to raise the alarm in the glob­al media, and brands' rep­u­ta­tions and ulti­mate­ly sales could suf­fer. Alter­na­tive­ly, retail­ers could absorb the raw mate­r­i­al price hike them­selves in return for lower mar­gins or final­ly, raw mate­r­i­al price hikes are ulti­mate­ly passed on to con­sumers."
In other words, the end to dirt-cheap, disposable fashion. This might not be such a bad thing, of course. Many ethical thinkers, including Pier Crush Vivienne Westwood, are convinced that there needs to be a sea change in the way we make and buy clothes if we are to consider ourselves to be ethical consumers and manufacturers. That change could be closer than we think; Ravasio predicts that the bottom will fall out of the cotton market in the next couple of years. That's nobody's idea of good news. If changing weather patterns continue to impact agriculture as they have been--if farmers can't sell their crops and no-one's growing food, a humanitarian disaster could be on the cards as well.

 Like I said at the beginning, uncomfortable questions can lead to answers that nobody wants to hear.

1 comment:

  1. You wrote: "Cotton uses over a third of available arable land worldwide, larger than food or fuel crops."

    This is a shocking figure, but is this true?
    I point out two out of many comments I found out in reaction to the Guardian's article you cite, which contradict this figure (citing official sources) by a factor 10: