Welcome back to “People Month”, Legacy Makers! In past articles, we discussed how fast fashion is environmentally destructive as well as how a lack of ethical consumerism can lead to the exploitation of the vulnerable, including men, women, and children of all ages living in poverty around the world. In today’s article, we’ll look at how these issues intersect, how you as a consumer can make a difference, and what that “difference” entails for the often-voiceless stakeholders affected by cotton farming.
Today our story starts in the Nile Delta, the only place on Earth where Egyptian cotton grows. Nicknamed “white gold”, Egyptian cotton is finer, softer, and more breathable than any other type of cotton grown. Yet since 2001, there has been a 95% decline in demand as fast fashion companies sought out other inexpensive options, leaving millions of Egyptian farmers and weavers without employment. As a result of financial hardships, young Egyptian boys and girls tend to leave school in order to work or get married to ease their families’ burdens.
Financial burdens aren’t the only reason that children are unable to get access to education. Primary schools are low in demand, leading to overcrowding. The lack of safe transport for children living in rural areas often forces them to drop out. The problem disproportionately affects women, with 7 out of 10 illiterate Egyptians being women.
Illiteracy only serves to further marginalize cotton farmers. Illiterate cotton farmers are forced to rely on middle men to sell their cotton, middle men who often buy their cotton at prices below the cost of production. This leads to cotton farmers becoming indebted. In other parts of the world, such as India, cotton farmers take out high-interest loans in order to purchase fertilizer needed grow their cotton. Even small setbacks such as a dip in cotton prices or bad weather caused by climate change can have devastating effects on their ability to support themselves and their families. Because of this, suicides are are a major problem among Indian farming communities, especially in Andhra Pradesh and the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Over 60% of the world’s cotton is produced by these small scale-farmers, who are among the poorest people on the planet.
So how can you help cotton farmers improve their standard of living for themselves, their families, and generations to come?
Shop for clothes at companies that are Fair-Trade Certified or have initiatives in place to compensate their cotton farmers fairly. Here are just a few:
KOTN (uses ethically sourced Egyptian cotton, builds schools for children in Egypt)
PACT (Fair Trade Certified, organic cotton, Certified B Corp)
Spread awareness about this issue and promote brands that are actively engaging to solve the problem on social media and in our own personal circles.
Give gift cards to stores that are Fair-Trade or use ethical production
Tell your friends about this issue, either in discussion or by sharing social media posts
Do your research! Similar stories exist in the cocoa, coffee, and sugar industries, where a lack of fair trade can devastate communities.
Petition popular brands to make the switch to ethically sourced cotton, and to increase transparency about their supply chain practices.
Use social media to tag or tweet at them
Many companies have a “Contact Us” form at the bottom of their web page which you can use to ask about their production methods
You may not feel like your voice matters, but change is already underway, and that change is making a big difference in the lives of cotton farmers, their families, and their communities. Toronto-based company KOTN made $80,000 over Black Friday weekend, and are now using that money to rebuild and fund the operations of two decommissioned schools in the towns of El Lebeidy and Al Mashhour, which will allow 80 children ages 6-14 to attend school for the first time in their lives this year. By 2025, they plan to fund the building and operations of 50 more schools, leaving a legacy that will last a lifetime.