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The ethics of cotton production

Ethical Consumer highlights many issues with cotton in the clothing industry, from workers' rights to use of toxic pesticides.

Cotton makes up around a quarter of all fibres, and after polyester is the most widely used fabric in our clothing.

Cotton is the main source of income for around a billion people worldwide, including 100 million farmers. In fact, according to WWF, the industry “employs almost 7% of all labour in developing countries.”

However, the industry is also associated with many ethical issues – from forced labour to use of genetically modified seeds. It is also amongst the world’s thirstiest and most pesticide-intensive crops.

What is the water footprint of cotton?

Cotton is an incredibly water-intensive fabric. Just one cotton t-shirt will require around 2,500 litres of water to produce (depending on where it was grown). 

That’s the same amount one person drinks in two and a half years.

As a crop, cotton usually needs to be irrigated in addition to rainwater, meaning that water is drawn from rivers, lakes and other sources, contributing to water scarcity and depletion.

In India, the water required to grow a year’s worth of cotton for export could supply over half of the population with 100 litres of water a day for an entire year. Meanwhile, over 90 million people - over 6% of India's population - don’t have access to safe water.

By comparison, hemp uses around 80% less water per kg than cotton.

The world’s dirtiest crop?

Cotton is said to cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land and yet uses 4.7% of the world’s pesticides and 10% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other major crop. This fact led the Environmental Justice Foundation to declare cotton the world’s ‘dirtiest’ agricultural commodity.

Chemical pesticides are a biodiversity problem and major driver of plummeting bird and bee numbers, as well as collapsing soil health. The majority of chemical pesticides are derived from fossil fuels, which therefore has climate change implications.

Genetically modified cotton

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit pro-biotech organisation, genetically modified (GM) cotton accounted for around 90% of all the cotton in China, India and the USA - the world's top cotton producers.

Campaigners argue that GM cotton poses unnecessarily risks, about which little is understood. GM plants are designed to be more dominant than other kinds, meaning that when crossbreeding takes place, GM varieties can spread and wipe out native varieties. GM seeds are also often designed to be used with certain kinds of pesticides, locking farmers into toxic chemical use. In 2019, cotton used 4.7% of the world’s pesticides (and 10% of insecticides).

Farmers are also unable to save their seeds and can get locked into a cycle of debt, unable to cover the costs of the more expensive seeds and chemicals. 

When rating companies for our shopping guides, if a company does not source 100% organic cotton or 100% Fairtrade cotton it loses half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s Pollution & Toxics and Controversial Technologies categories.

Does cotton growing use forced labour?

It is highly likely that cotton used in our clothing is produced with forced labour, from various places in the world.

Xinjiang region in China

The End Uyghur Forced Labour (EUFL) says that there is evidence of the Chinese government using “forced labour as a means of social control” throughout the cotton-producing Uyghur region of Xinjiang. Uyghur Muslims and other minorities are forced to work in cotton growing or processing, after being interred in “reeducation” facilities.

Around 20% of all cotton worldwide comes from this region, meaning around one fifth of garments include it. A research report published in 2021 by Sheffield Hallam University, ‘Laundering Cotton’, tracked shipping data and detailed, link by link, how cotton from the Uyghur Region is very likely to make its way onto shop shelves around the world. Due to the supply chains involved, the report states that 103 well-known international brands are at high risk of having Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains. Brands named include Adidas, Nike, Levi's, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, Primark, Gap, H&M, Decathlon, Jack Wolfskin, PVH Corp, Tesco, River Island, Topshop, VF Corporation, Ikea and Uniqlo.

Brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China as a result. Find out more in our feature on the abuses the Chinese state is perpetrating against Uyghur Muslims and our feature article on should we boycott 'Made in China'?

We expect apparel companies to have a policy expressing that they will not source cotton from the Uyghur Region, otherwise they get marked down under our Human Rights category. Small companies don’t need to have a policy saying this if they are clear about where their cotton is sourced from (and that isn’t the Uyghur Region).


State-sanctioned forced labour is also used in cotton production in Turkmenistan. Every cotton picking season, the government forces public sector workers to fulfil cotton picking quotas. Private businesses are also forced to contribute either labour or money to the harvest.

In order to meet the quotas, parents often having to recruit their children’s help. The harvest leaves, schools, businesses and health institutions understaffed or closed, at significant cost to health, education and well-being in the country.

Companies that do not have a system in place to ensure that their cotton is not sourced from Turkmenistan lose half a mark under the Workers’ Rights category in our shopping guides.

Workers in rows at sewing machines
Image from End Uyghur Forced Labour

Legislation is now helping tackle Uyghur cotton and forced labour

In June 2022, a new forced labour ban was implemented in the US, which means that if there’s any reason to suspect that clothing being imported comes from forced labour it will be refused entry at the border. Any company wanting to import cotton from the Uyghur Region must show it was not made with forced labour (which is impossible to show), therefore it’s an incredibly effective law.

Similar forced labour laws are now being advocated for in the EU and other countries, and it’s hoped this will make it similarly difficult for forced-labour sourced clothing to find a market – including anything from the Uyghur Region or Turkmenistan.

Why have brands gone silent on Uyghur cotton?

Previously we have highlighted how the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region was campaigning for brands to sign a pledge to not source from the region, but this pledge is no longer running. Patricia Carrier, Business Engagement Lead at the coalition explains what’s changed.

"Any big brand publicly declaring withdrawal from the Uyghur Region as a response to Uyghur forced labour was putting staff in China in a really precarious situation. Staff have been detained and harassed until they shut up shop and leave because they can’t work credibly or safely anymore."

Brands also don’t want to face backlash or boycott calls from consumers in China for taking a political stance. This means that many companies are choosing to withdraw from the region quietly, commonly citing 'business reasons’.

Does this mean the forced-labour problem is solved?

A report from Sheffield Hallam University showed that Xinjiang cotton is still finding its way into international brands’ supply chains, even if they say they don’t source from there. This is in part due to lack of transparency in where their cotton comes from.

Carrier says “Unfortunately there’s really nothing a company can do aside from immediately disengage from suppliers connected to the region. Ideally, we’d want a company to map and trace that supply chain down to raw material levels/cotton levels in order to show it’s fully disengaged.”

One solution is for brands to publish their full supply chains. 

Is there any ethical cotton available?

There are several international schemes which seek to certify or enable ethical cotton which hasn't used forced labour, or is organic or fair trade. We highlight some of these schemes below.

Responsible Sourcing Network

The Responsible Sourcing Network (a project of USA organisation As You Sow) asks brands to avoid using Turkmen cotton by signing up to its ‘Cotton Pledge’.

By signing up to the pledge brands are then expected to communicate their policy to suppliers; use traceability documents for all cotton products and textiles; identify the location of strategic mills; engage with the Turkmen Government; and consider joining RSN’s Economic Leverage Working Group on Turkmen Cotton.

Five companies in our clothing guide had signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Turkmen Cotton Pledge which commits them to not knowingly use cotton from Turkmenistan:

These companies did not lose a mark under Workers’ Rights. Other companies, like New Look, which had not signed the Cotton Pledge but made detailed public statements about not sourcing from Turkmenistan, also did not lose a mark here.

Ethical Consumer and Responsible Sourcing Network previously also expected not to source from Uzbekistan, where state-sanctioned forced labour was rife in cotton production. But in 2021, NGOs found no forced labour in the country’s cotton industry and stated that after many years the issue had been resolved.

Sustainable cotton sourcing

A growing number of companies use only ‘sustainable cotton’, which they usually define as organic, recycled and Better Cotton, and/or Fairtrade. These include:

Many other brands have made pledges to source 100% ‘sustainable cotton’ between now and 2025, including Amazon, ASOS, Bershka, Debenhams, Gap, H&M, Levi’s, Marks and Spencer, Nasty Gal, Next, Sainsbury's, Tesco’s F&F, Warehouse, White Stuff, Uniqlo and Zara. Some others have pledges for 2030.

Ethical Consumer considers the most sustainable cotton to be organic or recycled. This means you won’t be supporting GM cotton (which is allowed under initiatives such as Better Cotton, which lots of brands favour).

Better Cotton Initiative

The Better Cotton Initiative is a multi-stakeholder initiative which was set up in 2005 to reduce the water and pesticides used to grow cotton. The initiative also has criteria on ‘decent work’ which are based on the labour standards of the International Labour Organisation, the UN specialised agency on work and employment. It has 300 retailer members and is supported by civil society organisations such as WWF and Pesticides Action Network.

It involves monitoring and assessment by third parties to make sure that the standards are adhered to.
Farmers benefit from increased profits and health benefits from the reduced use of costly pesticides (which can account for up to 60% of farming costs). But unlike programmes such as Fairtrade, there is no formal product labelling system for consumers and no premium paid to the farmers.

There are also no criteria to prohibit the use of GM cotton.

The programme has come under fire in recent years for failing to address forced labour in the Uyghur region of China. In March 2020, Better Cotton suspended activities in the region over major human rights concerns. But a year later, after backlash in China, it deleted all public statements and references to exiting the region.

The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour condemned the decision, stating: “By continuing to operate in China without being clear on its zero tolerance for forced labour and its rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region, BCI is allowing itself to be used by the Chinese government to claim that business can go on as usual and to deny the ongoing crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic forced labour, in the Uyghur Region.”

In the 2020-21 cotton season, 2.2 million farmers grew under Better Cotton. BCI cotton now accounts for 22% of global cotton production

Certified cotton on the high street

There is a general lack of Fairtrade, organic and recycled clothes on the high street, but the situation is slowly improving.

Patagonia only uses organic cotton. H&M, Asos, and New Look offer organic cotton clothes in ranges of varying degrees of variety.

See our guide to high street clothing brands to find out how these brands rate.

Sustainable cotton - what are the different types available?

Organic cotton is free of chemical pesticides and genetically modified seeds. It has social criteria based on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions guaranteeing workers’ rights and working conditions. 

These cover minimum wages, working hours, child labour, freedom of association, discrimination, harsh or inhumane treatment and more.


The main benefit of Fairtrade cotton is the guaranteed minimum price that is paid to farmers which provides a safety net for when market prices fall below a sustainable level. Plus, farmers are paid a ‘Premium’, additional income for strategic and community investment. The Fairtrade standard also stipulates no GM, no forced or child labour, no discrimination and minimised pesticide use.


Recycling cotton means less water, no pesticides or GM, and no landfilling of old cotton clothes.

Recycling cotton currently degrades the quality of the material so, commonly, around 30% of recycled cotton content is used in the finished fabric.

The process used chops up the fibres and makes them too short to be strong enough without some non-recycled content. But Levi’s has said that it will make all of its products from 100% recycled cotton by 2025 by using a new process.

Consumer actions on cotton

Carefully produced and traced cotton can be one of the most sustainable materials around. When buying new cotton items consumers can:

  • look for Organic, Fairtrade or recycled cotton to avoid problems around GM and forced labour.
  • look for the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) label 

Consumers can also