Culture, Substance

The true price of cotton

January 27, 2019


A link you don’t often associate is between the environment and human rights. I think we are aware that there is a relationship. But I personally (and rather shamefully I may add) was unaware of the extent which both directly feed into each other.

In essence, the economy is wholly owned and dependant on the natural world.

This dependency and constant extraction of raw materials directly leads to the abuse of human rights. Particularly in the form of Labour Rights abuse.


The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) has been a leading figure in investigating, documenting and matching the information it discover with high level political auditory.

They challenge this toxic relationship, give the voiceless a voice, and actually enable them the play a major role in finding the solution.


One area of particular concern is water. Without water, there is no economy, no money and ultimately no life.

To put this into perspective, the EJF have reported that by 2030 half the world’s population will be living in highly stressed water areas. Climate change and exploitation of this precious resource leads to extreme poverty, lack of drinking water and an inability to grow crops. This stress, unsurprisingly, makes people very vulnerable to having their world views changed. If you are unable to feed or provide for your family, the world can seem a very hostile place. From this despair, it can be a short path to radicalisation – although this is another story in its own right. Here, I just want to emphasise the severity and hostility of having a lack of water. Something the western world too happily takes for granted and are ignorant of the impact our actions have.

Not only a primal necessity water is the driving force behind the agriculture economy. Cotton production is the most valuable non-food agriculture trade in the world. This “white gold” needs a lot of water. Often at the expense of those growing it.


Cotton production through human rights abuse and environmental exploitation is nothing new. But the sheer scope and scale of this ever-growing industry means it is something we can no longer ignore.

80% of Europe’s cotton footprint comes from outside the EU. The harsh reality, is that we are benefiting at the expense of others. The clothes we put on our back are stripping the clothes off another.


In Uzbekistan, irrigation for cotton plantations has led to the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, it now resembles a residual brine lake. A harrowing site of abandoned fishing boats rooted into the bare salt plains, where plenitude once stood.



This critical loss of water has had countless consequences on the local community. All 24 species of fish formerly found in the Sea have been wiped out. Once a fishing community, dependant on this practice, have been left no alternative but to turn to cotton.

Or perhaps I should say, forced.


With 90% of cotton harvest being gathered by hand, children are often forced into this back breaking labour. Schools close and their teachers take them to the fields. Each child is enslaved by the need to meet a given ‘quota’ and are forced to work off their ‘debt’. One which will never be paid and keep them trapped.

This debt, and all the wealth picked from this back breaking labour, goes directly to state owned companies.



Uzbekistan’s cotton trade is state sponsored forced child labour.


Farming crops instead of cotton would be much more beneficial for these communities. But the billion dollar revenues from this trade are too attractive for those in power.


Europe buys 1/3 of Uzbekistan’s cotton. We a fuelling this industry. An industry which endorses state sponsored forced child labour.

Circumstances like these are not uncommon. They are happening all around the world. Uzbekistan is just one example in a long list.


20,000 litres of water produce 1kg of cotton. This links back to Fast Fashion. An industry fuelled by our ‘throw away attitude’. Recycling and creating a circular economy doesn’t negate the usage and destruction needed to produce the original garment.


Shopping centres are cathedrals to consumerism.


3 parties need to enforce a change:

  • The Government: by regulation and stricter enforcement.
  • The Industry: by leading the way and engaging in more ethical and environmentally sustainable practices.
  • The Consumer: by demanding more from the industry and government, and inspiring others through their choices.


This ‘choice’ is the driving mechanism of political change.

There is a higher cost to this. But what are you actually paying for?


There is no such thing as ‘cheap clothes’. Somewhere, someone is paying the price. Our cheap clothes come at the cost of human and environmental resource exploitation.

Fashion is a door to everyone. Everyone is complicit; we all wear clothes. We have all made a conscious choice. Was it the right one?


“If we don’t have peace in our atmosphere, we won’t have peace in our world”

Steven Trent, The Environmental Justice Foundation 


Images courtesy of The Environmental Justice Foundation


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