Cotton is a popular textile fiber touted as being eco-friendly since it is derived from a sustainable plant. It is widely recognized for its use in the making of fabrics for clothing, sheets and towels. Surprisingly, it is also present in U.S. currency, rope, paper, cooking oil, livestock feed and some fuels. Despite its usefulness, cotton has many concerns today from its environmental impact to its link to human trafficking.
Historically, the white fluffy bolls dotted much of the southern U.S. landscape. Today, the United States is still known for its production of cotton. Cotton is associated historically with slavery due to the use of African and Caribbean slaves to pick cotton on southern plantations. At the turn of the 20th century, cotton became synonymous with sharecroppers. It is estimated that about 1/3 of sharecroppers were former slaves and their descendants and 2/3 were poor whites. Sharecroppers were promised land to work, a place to live and cotton seed, so long as the owner of the land received half of the profits from the cotton. This system was wrought with exploitation as many of the sharecroppers ended up in debt bondage to the landowner due to poor crops, exorbitant rent prices and the seed prices. This bondage guaranteed a workforce for the landowner.
Sadly, today, cotton cultivation is still a source of exploitation in various foreign countries. In 2022, the United Nations published a human rights abuse report confirming that the Chinese government’s Uyghur internment camps in XinJiang province engage in forced labor to include the picking of cotton which ends up in an estimated 16% of the cotton goods found on retail shelves worldwide. The international concern over the various abuses against the Uyghur people led the United States government to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in 2022, which allows customs officials to seize products from XinJiang, unless it can be shown these products were produced without forced labor of the Uyghur people.
The governments of both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan force many of their citizens, including nurses, teachers and doctors, to leave their jobs and work in the cotton fields often with no remuneration. Children as young as 10 have also been forced into the fields. Uzbekistan has begun to take steps to stop the practice, however, the need to harvest the cash crop of cotton outweighs these efforts. Turkmenistan refuses to acknowledge it has a forced labor practice. The U.S. Department of State has noted the Turkmenistan government’s forced labor practices leading to a ban on the importation of Turkmen cotton in 2019, yet it is still finding its way into the United States as its fibers end up in products from other countries which are then sold in the United States.
An international campaign called the Cotton Pledge is putting pressure on retailers and suppliers to stop purchasing cotton harvested via forced labor which appears to be making an impact. So, when buying cotton products, research their origins.