Thursday, 10 May 2012

Cotton: America's Spoilt Child

I desperately try - and fail - to understand economics but some things just don't go into this pretty little head of mine, and that is one of them. I do understand that, generally, the countries who are good at doing something do it, and export it to the countries which need the goods. There's a policy called free trade which means that a government doesn't interfere with imports or exports; no adding tariffs to imports, or subsidies to exports. Yes, Adam Smith, I know you are turning in your grave over these clumsy definitions, but sometimes I need to break things down into Layman's terms to understand them at all.

For quite some years now the main issue surrounding free trade has been cotton. Surprising, when you think of the innocuous garments made from cotton: pyjamas, t-shirts, knickers.. the staples you wouldn't consider living without. However, ten years ago C-4+1 (the Cotton 4 countries - Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Mali, plus Senegal), along with Brazil, took action against the subsidies America provides its cotton farmers. The subsidies stabilise the price of cotton for American farmers and the subsidy means they can charge less for their cotton than Third World farmers can, depressing the cost of cotton. The World Trade Organisation deemed some of the subsidies illegal - unsurprising, really, when you consider farmers in the C-4 rarely have enough money to feed their families. Since 2002 the American government have pumped $24 billion into the cotton trade, despite the WTO's ruling.

 It is for this reason my blood boils every time I come across the Cotton USA advertorial in Vogue.


I have nothing against Louise Gray as a designer or as an individual, in fact I am rather keen on her whimsical, colourful designs, with her autumn/winter 2012 being the most wearable yet. We must also be realistic - in the current economic climate (I am so sick of that term) firms need all the financial help they can get. No, it is more the fact that Cotton USA have the money to be sponsoring anybody, whilst the C-4 countries are amongst the poorest in the world, ranked by the World Bank in 2006 as being between 173-193 out of around 208 countries (Oxfam America report).

The advertorial also implies that Cotton USA is of better quality than cotton from elsewhere: "US cotton is so versatile, and there is so much you can do with it", Gray is quoted as saying. I can't comment on the quality of different cottons - have you ever noticed that on your clothing labels it rarely, if ever says where the fabric is from, just where the garment was made? - though I'm sure People Tree would have something to say on that matter. They do not source their cotton, as most other fashion retailers do. They work with cotton farmers from the ground up to make sure everyone gets a fair pay, and the cotton they create is a heavy weight, thus is of good quality.

I've barely touched upon the cotton pricing issue. Most of it I honestly do not understand; the Oxfam report contains equations which make my brain hurt. I am more concerned now with what I - we - can do about it. I don't for a moment suggest boycotting Louise Gray: the designer's talent should be encouraged and nurtured - just not in this way. The first step is to make retailers and manufacturers aware of the situation; usually when I meet those in the clothing industry I ask about their supply chain, and where they source their fabrics. Some may think that is a bit sad, but others may actually go away and think about it and do a little research. I also go on about Fair Trade cotton a fair bit and would love to see more designers using that. Can you imagine a Louise Gray and People Tree collaboration? The results would be most excellent, with Gray's eclectic clash of prints, colours, and global influences, combined with People Tree's cotton knowledge and Fair Trade supply chain.

I hope this has given you food for thought. Once again, I don't claim to be an expert on ethical fashion, merely someone blundering their way along, trying to do their best for the world and everybody in it. If you have any suggestions or discussion points please do comment, as I would love to hear your view.

1 comment:

  1. VERY well written. You go girl! You cotton mouthed crusader.
    It's about having a kind of 'global community' mentality, which America has.... but they just think that the world begins and ends with USA.



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