Part of the Solution: Dirty Cotton

According to a report from the Environmental Justice Foundation, titled “The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton,” and written in collaboration with the Pesticide Action Network UK:
  • Approximately 1 kilo of pesticide is applied to every hectare of cotton.

  • 99% of the world’s cotton farmers are located in developing countries, where safety precautions when dealing with the application of pesticides, such as access to protective gear, are nearly non-existent.

  • One third of the word’s cotton farmers are found in India, where cotton farmers have been seen wearing only short sleeved t-shirts and sarongs while working barefoot and barehanded when dealing with pesticides.

  • Direct contact with pesticides in cotton production results in at least 1 million hospitalizations each year and the acute pesticide poisoning of between 25 and 77 million agricultural workers worldwide.

  • Children are at severe risk of poisoning due to laboring in the fields or residing in close proximity to them.

  • The world’s cotton consumers demand more cotton today than ever before, with North America responsible for 25% of the world’s cotton consumption, and Europe following at 20%.

  • Consumers can directly impact cotton industry methods, and the social and environmental consequences of such, through their purchases.
Back when Ella and Lenna used to let me dress them, before they cared, I would hit the end of season sales at children’s clothing stores to buy their wardrobes for the next year. On clearance at 70% off, I could purchase an entire collection of coordinating separates in fun colors, prints, and patterns for next to nothing. And I was proud of this. I felt like the Proverbs Woman, dressing my family in scarlet.

But one fall evening, not too terribly long after procuring my oldest daughter’s second grade attire, my husband, Bjoern, and I happened to catch a documentary on our German television subscription channel. This investigative report followed the path of cotton from the fields to the big vats of dye, then to the warehouses and the retail stores that offer their goods for low prices, appealing to the consumers’ wallets and need for more. Wallets and needs like mine.

And I was appalled.

The journalists followed cotton farmers in India, who were so poor that they went into debt to even purchase the pesticides needed to grow their crop. Once in possession of the required chemicals, they proceeded to walk their fields with bare feet and open, overflowing containers of pesticide on their backs as they sprayed. Their family, friends, and neighbors, well, many of them were in the hospital, where they suffered from pesticide poisoning induced neurological disorders and, all too often, died.

Prior to that night, cotton was something I valued for its soft, natural fiber. I liked the way cotton felt against my skin, keeping me cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I found it important to seek out high quality, thick cotton in products that wouldn’t pill or fade, but had never given thought to discovering the origin of this white gold, let alone the methods with which it was grown and the resulting adverse effects on farmers. I hadn’t known to, I just hadn’t known.

Now enlightened, Ella’s new wardrobe was burning a deep hole in my conscious. Were my clothing purchases an act of loving my neighbor as myself? While my expenditures had been an act of loving my family, undoubtedly a noble cause, this new information left me feeling conflicted, and convicted. Yet also commissioned.

See, having already contributed to the demand for inexpensive cotton, I knew I couldn’t reverse my previous purchasing decisions. But maybe, for the future, I could remember the Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Realistically, I figured it would be impossible to completely remove myself from the world’s system of cotton production– at some point I was going to need to buy new undergarments or socks. (Oh, okay, and the fashionable top here and there. I’m only woman after all.) But if my family and I could make do with fewer articles of clothing, then purchase organic or second-hand items at Goodwill, consignment shops, or Ebay whenever possible, then perhaps I could be one drop in the bucket of relief for the world’s cotton farmers, supporting clean production and lessening demand.

Maybe we could all be that little globule of relief?

They say that knowledge is power, and now I can attest to this fact. Comprehending how I was a part of the problem could also mean that it was possible to be a part of the solution. For it was only when I understood how my habits within the world’s clothing industry system contributed to oppression and injustice that I could intentionally strive towards the opposite end. And that, to me, was, and still is, empowering.

But this experience has me wondering: What else don’t I know?

That’s where you come in.

This column is intended be a place where we can come together and share our knowledge - our facts and our experiences - to empower and encourage one another into action. Let’s learn together how we can be a part of the solution in dismantling our world’s unjust systems of oppression. So, if you’ve got something we ought to know, send your facts and story, in 800 words or less, to reviews@burnsidewriterscollective.com.

(Editors Note: "Part of the Solution" is one of a series of new columns we'll be featuring on BWC 2.0. Click here for more information.)


  1. Kim,

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I had no idea.


  2. Great post, Kim. I have such a hard time with making good decisions about clothes. Thanks for the reminders.

    I'll have to think about my latest "how did I not know that?!" moment. They seem to happen at least once a month :)

  3. Very eye-opening! I totally agree that such working conditions are not fit for people made in the image of God. And that we should do more reducing, reusing and recycling, because we tend to be an exceptionally wasteful society. But between supporting clean production and decreasing demand of cotton, the focus should be on supporting clean production, especially in places like India. Because I would bet that no matter how horrible the conditions, those farmers aren't hoping that demand for cotton will decrease. People are smart and enterprising, and if they had better, more profitable ways to make a living, they would be taking those options. But increasing demand for, say, safely-grown Indian cotton, that would keep those farmers in business and improve their working conditions.

    Finding such items to purchase, on the other hand, might be more of a challenge! I'm afraid I've never looked! Time to get on that, huh?