Skip to main content

The Ethics of Cotton Production

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

The sourcing of sustainable cotton is a major issue within the clothing industry. There are workers’ rights issues associated with its production, as well as the prevalence of GM cotton, the widespread use of toxic pesticides and high water footprint. 

About 75% of our clothing contains some cotton and 300 million farmers in 80 countries rely on cotton for their livelihoods. More than 90% of those farmers live in developing countries on farms of less than two hectares and cotton represents an important cash crop for them.

The world’s thirstiest crop?

Cotton production is a water-intensive business. The global average water footprint of cotton fabric is 10,000 litres per kilogram. That means that one cotton shirt of 250 grams costs about 2500 litres. A pair of jeans of 800 grams will cost 8000 litres. On average, one-third of the water footprint of cotton is used because the crop has to be irrigated, contributing to water scarcity and the depletion of rivers and lakes.

For example, the water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would have been enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India didn’t have access to safe water.

By comparison, hemp only needs 2,000 litres of water per kg.

The world’s dirtiest crop?

Cotton is said to cover 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land and yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other major crop. This fact led to the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Pesticide Action Network declaring cotton to be the world’s ‘dirtiest’ agricultural commodity.

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 64% of cotton grown in 2016.

For some campaigners, growing GM plants in open fields are ‘the pollution you can’t put back’. Impacts of plant escape from GM fields and potential interbreeding are insufficiently understood risks. Also, farmers are unable to save their seeds and can get locked into a cycle of debt, unable to cover the costs of the more expensive agricultural inputs of seeds and chemicals.

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.

Forced labour

According to the US Department of Labour, cotton is one of the goods most commonly produced using forced labour. Forced labour exists in nine countries producing 65% of the world’s cotton – Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Europe is the biggest single destination for Uzbek cotton.

While forced labour in cotton production remains endemic in many countries, nowhere is it more organised than in Uzbekistan. Farmers are ordered to grow cotton and every year at harvest time the repressive government forcibly mobilises over one million citizens, including teachers and doctors, to leave their regular jobs for a few weeks and go to the fields to pick cotton. The profits from the cotton production go to the country’s powerful elite.

Update: In March 2022  it was announced that the long-running boycott of Uzbek cotton was being lifted. For the first time, in the 2021 cotton harvest, Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found no government-sponsored forced labour. This came five years after the Uzbek Government first entered into negotiations with campaigners to work towards ending the boycott.

Cotton sourced from the 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.

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

A new research report published in November 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.

Louisa Greve, Director of Global Advocacy at Uyghur Human Rights Project said:

“This pioneering research makes it clear that only through a firm commitment to exclude Uyghur Region cotton can brands provide any meaningful assurance to consumers and regulators that they are taking all the steps they can to remove the risk from their supply chains. This report leaves leading apparel brands, from Anthropologie to Uniqlo, with nowhere to hide.”

Image: Forced Labour in Cotton Production

In 2012, Uzbekistan stopped forcing so many children to pick cotton but replaced them with adults. This change followed years of campaigning by the Cotton Campaign, a wide coalition of organisations including Anti-Slavery International (ASI). (Note from March 2022, forced adult labour appears to have been ended and the boycott lifted.)

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

Responsible Sourcing Network

The Responsible Sourcing Network (a project of USA organisation As You Sow) asks brands to avoid using Uzbek 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 Uzbek Government; join RSN’s Economic Leverage Working Group on Uzbek Cotton.

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

  • Amazon
  • ASDA (George)
  • American Apparel
  • Forever 21
  • Inditex (Pull and Bear, Zara)
  • Walmart
  • Tesco
  • Gap
  • M&S
  • H&M
  • Levi Strauss
  • Patagonia
  • Primark
  • Tesco (F&F)

These companies did not lose a mark under Workers’ Rights if we found evidence that they were actively implementing the pledge. Other companies, like New Look, which had not signed the Cotton Pledge but made detailed public statements about not sourcing from Uzbekistan, also did not lose a mark here.

Sustainable Cotton

Many of the high-street clothing companies now have targets to source 100% sustainable cotton (organic, recycled and Better Cotton, although it may include Fairtrade) by 2020 or by 2025.

The following brands have signed up to the Sustainable Cotton Communiqué, through which they pledge to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025: ASOS, H&M, Levi’s, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury's and Tesco’s F&F.

FatFace and H&M have made commitments that by 2020 100% of their cotton would be sourced sustainably.

In April 2017 GAP announced a new commitment to obtain 100% of its cotton from more sustainable sources by 2021. In June 2019, Gap Inc. announced that it will derive 100% of its cotton from more sustainable sources by 2025.

M&S said that all of its cotton would be sustainable by 2019. Last year 77% of its sourced cotton was grown more sustainably, most of which is sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative. 

For H&M, in 2018, 95% of cotton used by H&M Group was recycled or otherwise sustainably sourced. 79.9% of this was Better Cotton rather than the more sustainable sources – organic or recycled.

H&M is the only company through its Conscious range to offer sustainable cotton which extends beyond a t-shirt. A pair of jeans from H&M’s Conscious range cost from £17.99, around the same as others sold by the retailer.

Better Cotton

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 135 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.

Image: Better Cotton Initiative

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.

At the end of 2018, 2 million farmers worldwide were growing Better Cotton, making up 19% of global cotton production. By 2020, it is aiming for 5 million farmers, producing 30% of the world’s cotton.

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. AsosZara, New Look, and Fat Face offer organic cotton clothes in ranges of varying degrees of variety. 

The Fairtrade Foundation and the Soil Association don’t list any high street brands as supplying Fairtrade or organic cotton – only ethical clothing brands like People Tree, Seasalt, Komodo, Greenfibres and Rapanui.

Sustainable Cotton

Organic cotton is pesticide and GM-free. 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.

Become a subscriber today

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. A wealth of data at your fingertips.

From only £29.95 for 12 months web access and the print magazine. Cancel via phone or email within 30 days for a full, no-questions-asked refund!

Start your subscription - find out more