Simon Ferrigno is a writer and researcher of sustainability with a focus on cotton, with 20 years experience in the field. He also works on Black Heritage projects with refugees and migrants from Africa in the UK, and is Chair of European Movement Derbyshire. We are honoured to have him write this article for us.

Paradise regained?

In a previous post surrounding indigo, cotton and slavery, Denim Dudes explored the brutal beginnings of today’s American cotton industry and its associations with the enslavement of Africans. But when we trace the events up to and after the civil war, right through to today’s current supply chain, unfortunately the industry is still beset with a range of problems, which have their roots in the slave era and its successors: the colonial and neo-colonial eras. This troubled journey has led to the inequalities and negative impacts embedded within today’s cotton system. In this article, I will be explaining the trajectory from the mid 1800’s to today, unpacking humanity’s various short fallings along the way whilst offering advice to those brands trying to make more ethical choices today.

A brief history

The US Civil War left chaos, not just in the United States, but across Europe, where textiles industries had become dependent on US cotton. Many were left out of work and everything came to a juddering halt as cotton supplies dried up, while the increased awareness of slavery also led to campaigns for ‘free grown cotton’.

Enslaved Africans returning from the cotton fields in South Carolina, circa 1860. Credit: Getty Images

Realising their dependency on US cotton, many countries looked to develop cotton production in other regions, including Africa, India and Central Asia. The Civil War and the ending of slavery in the United States were a huge contributor to the so-called Scramble for Africa – the colonisation of a continent with its concomitant atrocities, destruction of cultures and a de-facto freeze on it’s development during the colonial era (a century or more in many cases) as its resources were plundered.

The aftermath of the Second World War led to the decolonisation of Africa, but outside powers managed to maintain a stranglehold on sectors like cotton. The continent continued to suffer a number of destabilizing blows through the proxy cold wars of the 60’s and 70’s. All this left a legacy that led to cases of genocide and corrupt and dysfunctional economies. The structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s then saw the dismantling of African research institutes and investment in cotton and textiles.

It was not until the late 1980s that efforts to raise production standards began to improve the environmental impact of cotton. Organic cotton emerged in 1989, followed later by Fairtrade in 2005, Cotton made in Africa (2005) and then Better Cotton (2005 with the standard launched in 2009). However, progress was slow in Africa as many buyers preferred to source in countries with strong manufacturing sectors; sectors that had failed to develop in Africa due to a lack of investment during the colonial era and since.

Cotton gin: loading the cotton in Benin, West Africa. Photo from Simon Ferrigno’s personal travels.

Africa today also confronts climate change, a problem it faces while having contributed to it hardly at all.
Standards are part of the solution, but the urgency of the problems mean we need to move faster than standards are actually progressing. The due diligence approach promoted by the OECD and introduced in 2017 places responsibility on brands for their supply chains and what happens within them. It is a tool to identify the most critical problems within the supply chain (which will vary for each, and could include overuse of pesticides, labour concerns, human rights, deforestation, and so on), support the supply chain to address them and provide the resources to make positive change.

We live in a present that feels like one crisis after another – the past decade has taken us from a financial crisis through to the Coronavirus pandemic, a rise in populism and instability and the looming threat of climate change which we are told must be addressed within a decade. It’s a lot to unpack. But great parallels can be drawn between past atrocities and mistakes with our current, complex situation, so, let’s unravel the past to take lessons for the future.

Post Civil War America

After the Civil War, freed enslaved people confronted a new problem: freedom came without power. African Americans found themselves working for the man, and that man was white and still very much in control. As the textiles industry grew in the North, they remained low paid workers and farmers. Many moved North when they could, still confronting discrimination. Former enslavers still owned the seeds, stores and controlled the debt that workers built up until harvest, yet they did not cover the losses made by farmers or the spoils when the boll weevil devastated the crops.

‘Well the merchant got half the cotton,
The boll weevil got the rest,
Didn’t leave that farmer’s wife
But one old cotton dress,
And it’s full of holes,
Well the farmer say to the merchant,
“We ain’t made but only one bale;
And before we give you that one
We’ll fight and go to jail,”
We’ll have a home,’

The scramble for Africa and colonial cotton

Meanwhile, European powers looked south to the rumoured riches of Africa even as European travellers were exploring and mapping the continent. The industrialisation of slavery by European traders gave way to colonisation, where profits were taken out and nothing much was put in. Most of the few remaining independent states, such as Danhomey (a former slave trading state), were eventually brought under the rule of foreign powers.

Traditional African tree cotton, rarely grown commercially now. Photo from Simon Ferrigno’s personal travels.

Colonial authorities sought to replace the existing small scale, kitchen garden and artisanal industry that had existed for thousands of years with large scale plantations and monoculture. Cultures were subsumed into entities created by colonial powers. Africa’s indigenous and adapted cotton, G. Herbaceum, domesticated 4.500 years ago was gradually replaced with new varieties such as US Upland cotton. Textile imports from the colonial powers further damaged local textiles industries and economies.

European powers established cotton structures such as the British Cotton Grower’s Association (1902) or the French Association Cotonnière Coloniale, ensuring Africa in particular remained a raw material supplier and did not benefit from industrialisation (Egypt’s attempts to develop were thwarted by becoming a British protectorate, for example). Many monopoly cotton companies to this day remain part owned by the major European and American companies in Africa . Russia looked to Turkestan, Britain also to India, while in South America slavery continued in Brazil until 1888.

Some of the initial drive in Africa was paternalistic, well-intentioned, promoting anti-slavery activities, especially in Sierra Leone, where a programme to settle freed enslaved people had begun in 1808. But the big driver in colonialism was self-interest.

Colonial rule was in marked contrast to efforts to improve conditions in factories and slums in Europe, and nowhere more so than in Congo, the personal project of King Leopold II of Belgium .
Historical Gross Domestic Product figures show the impact of colonialism, when power shifted from East to West and South to North. Today many in the so-called developed world worry about the rise of China and India and other emerging economies, but in fact, 400 years ago China and India dwarfed the economies of Europe.
In 1600, Britain’s GDP was only 1.8% of the world total (it is 2.29% today). By 1870, it was 9.10%, fed by the plunder of colonies. India’s GDP declined from 22.54% to 12.25% (and to 7.49% today) and China’s from 29.14% to 17.23% (now 18.3%). Europe’s went from 20% to 33.61%, while the European Union’s is now some 22%. This shows that if anything, the end of an empire has led to a redressing of the balance, but inequalities remain: the GDP of many African countries barely grew at all in the colonial era. While there were benefits from the growth in trade before the empire, this disappeared once the countries became colonies.

GDP figures from 1600, 1870 (post Civil War) and today

One thing to remember is that for many, the standard of living now is immeasurably higher than then; our challenge and frankly, our responsibility is to help raise the living standards for those countries and peoples whose growth was damaged by slavery and colonialism.

Tensions generated by colonial competition in Africa led to the Berlin conference (1884-5), which codified the new borders, without the involvement of any African people or nations.

Attempts to avoid colonialism and exploitation of weaker nations failed even before the abolition of slavery in Britain, let alone its final eradication in the late 19th Century. The words of Edmund Burke, the Irish politician who attempted to stop the excesses and corporate takeover of India by the East India Company in the late 18th Century were in vain.

”The laws of morality are the same everywhere, and that there is no action which would pass for an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in England, that is not an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in Europe, Asia, Africa and the world over’.

Burke himself said he was doing this for posterity, for the day when Europe regained its values.

Decolonisation to Neo-Colonialism

The end of the Second World War ushered in decolonisation. This process was often rushed and ill-thought out (India and partition), and/or bitterly opposed (Indochina/Vietnam, Algeria, Kenya, Malaysia), with some countries not obtaining independence until the late 1970’s/ early 80’s (Angola, Zimbabwe). Many countries, especially in Africa, but also Vietnam, became the front line in the new Cold War, proxy battlefields between East and West.

The Porte du Retour in Benin is both an apology for slavery and a welcome home signpost for visitors of African descent. Photo from Simon Ferrigno’s personal travels.

Entities like the French Compagnie Française des Filières Textiles remained involved after independence, controlling the supply chain for inputs (seeds, pesticides, fertilisers) and ginned cotton.
If more liberalisation has since taken place (notably an ending of many monopolies), shareholdings give foreign companies huge power on the cotton sector, local decision making remains influenced from outside, and African cotton sectors struggle to fund their own research and development sectors.

In Africa, this post-colonial or neo-colonial period saw an increase in the intensification of cotton farming, to boost productivity, and for newly independent nations to increase foreign currency earnings, with a crop that was non-perishable and relatively easy to manage. Some aid programmes even supplied pesticides as part of aid packages. However, pesticides and modern varieties led to problems for small farmers in developing countries, including growing indebtedness, reduced food cropping and increased health problems.
Farmers did not get wealthier. Many were tied to gins or cotton companies, fixed prices and packages of inputs supplied on credit, which had to be repaid whether they made a profit or not; poverty drove many farmers to resell those inputs, resulting in short term gain but long term loss when they could not repay debt.

One in five cotton garments contains cotton that has come from Xinjiang

Bonded/forced labour in cotton was and remains a problem, including in Uzbekistan, with a present focus also on the Uighur people in Xinjiang (1 in 5 garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from this region)
I have personally interviewed people and their children in tribal areas of India, children who ended up as child labourers, helping hybridise GM, genetically modified, cotton ‘because children’s hands are small enough to do this work’. Agents visit these isolated and poor areas, offering cheap loans. Parents who cannot pay are told that debt can be written off if their children go to work on seed farms for a few months. Working long days, they prepare their own meals, and are rewarded with videos in the evenings. This is Modern slavery.

Child Labour remains common in cotton. Sometimes it is children of the family helping after school or during holidays, but bonded child labour also occurs. Photo from Simon Ferrigno’s personal travels.

Many problems remain rife: volatile prices, financial speculation, competition from synthetic fibres, oil prices, conflict, climate change, water stress, desertification, drought, pest resistance, land fragmentation, poor governance, corruption, and so on. All make cotton extremely risky for most farmers in the world, even those in wealthy, stable economies.

In low income countries the poverty involved in cotton impacts regional and national economies, leading to under-development and the impoverishment of future generations, even as low prices and stagflation saw booming consumption in rich countries.

Low incomes, losses and debt lead to reduced school enrolment, poor nutrition for adults and children, lack of community investment, and so on. In the long term, they mean that development does not occur, and in turn creates continued aid dependency. The correlation between prices on the world market and poverty is clear: a 40% decline in farm level cotton prices between January 2001 and May 2002 increased rural poverty in the short term by 8% in West Africa. The Cotton Outlook price in October 2005 was 64% of the 1990/1 price.
As with the 19th Century Free Grown Cotton Movement, this led to attempts to change the situation. Pesticide Action Network and other NGO and private initiatives began to promote organic cotton growing and to campaign on the issue of pesticides in the late 1980s, when pesticide use in cotton reached nearly 11% of total agricultural use (it has since fallen to 6%). India, Tanzania, later Benin, Peru and others saw the first production of organic cotton, with some major retailers beginning to adopt it.

By the early 2000s campaigns in Europe and then the US saw demand grow, slowly, but accelerating with the entry of other sustainable cotton programmes.

Farmers with their organic cotton crop, OBEPAB, Benin. Photo from Simon Ferrigno’s personal travels.

Standards: the present imperfect

Standards played an important role in cleaning up cotton, designing systems that measure the actions of producers against standard requirements. Most standards use agro-ecological principles and elements of Integrated Pest Management as a foundation, including low or no synthetic pesticides and fertiliser use, and other environmental criteria. Some add social and economic criteria. Some allow GM seeds, some don’t.
Miguel Altieri, a pioneer of agro-ecology, defined sustainable agriculture as ‘the ability of an agroecosystem to maintain production through time, in the face of long-term ecological constraints and socio-economic pressures’ , where ‘IPM emphasises the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms.’. This system is now in widespread use, and has contributed to the reduction in the use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, also defined poverty as ‘the inability to participate fully in the life of society’ , a very pertinent definition when we look at the long term effects of slavery, poverty and inequity.

However, there are few comprehensive and comparable impact assessments for standards; they take time to design and implement; they can be costly too, with many in the supply chain complaining the costs are passed onto them rather than brands or consumers.

The climate challenge

It’s taken over 30 years to go from the first standard to their combined production reaching 25% of the world’s cotton production, but we don’t have another 30 years to stop climate change. We have a decade at most. There is much to do, and it needs to be done across the industry, not in silos.

It is no longer a simple choice between good sustainable and bad conventional. There are many grey areas due to the improvements in conventional cotton, while the sometimes uneven implementation of sustainable standards means that there is no longer a way to simply assume they are good across the board.

We know too little about the impacts of sustainable cotton, while standard promoters often act as if all conventional cotton (and most of their rivals) are equally bad. We are promised studies and systems, but can we afford the time to wait for accurate data? Brands are drawn into standards because they want to improve (or in some cases to look good), but is this still the right way?

Standards prescribe, they do not diagnose.

Standards are based on a general view that all problems exist in all places more or less equally. But prescriptions on soil fertility are not based, for example, on local soil tests. And even with improvements in cotton, insecticides use is creeping up again, and herbicide use is skyrocketing.
There is no time, sang Lou Reed on the album New York. People have the Power, sang Patti Smith around the same time. Both correct, and yet, here we are. Prevarication reigns; cotton’s historic promise of lifting humanity above mere subsistence still unfulfilled.

The risk of relying on standards, or schemes is that they are based on a small number of criteria, are not responding to new ideas or doing so too slowly, and are not comprehensive or covering the full supply chain and its impacts.

What’s our way forward? Yes, standards are a good place to start, get something better into the supply chain. Some states are legislating: the UK and California have Modern Slavery laws (albeit over reliant on self-reporting) and France a Duty of Corporate Vigilance law, which requires companies to address human rights and environmental issues. Eight member states are pressing the European Union to adopt this, which could be a game-changer given the size of the EU market and its resulting role as one of the world’s regulatory power-houses.

But we need brands to own the problem. This means practising due diligence (see table below for due diligence steps). It means not being bound by rigid, slow moving standards. It means not hiding one’s light under a mass balanced bushel. It means full traceability, analysis of actual problems, disclosure and solving the greatest problems first. It means working with consumers, to switch from fast fashion to slow fashion. This can have costs for producers in regions where cotton is marginal, damaging or unprofitable, as climate change – even if we slow it – is already making things worse; solutions must be found. Perhaps we owe it to the ghosts of those who died on slave ships and who die still today on cotton farms?