So many positive, friendly, wholesome images of cotton pepper our society: bunnies have cotton tails, great days begin and end nestled in cotton sheets, the most comfortable summer wear is a cotton dress… and there’s cotton candy! However, the cotton harvest has a more complicated past in the West, and a shameful present in the East, which are incongruous to cotton’s place in pop culture. Despite the fluffy white end product, cotton cultivation can be a grueling process littered with hardship and exploitation.
During the era of Imperialism, cotton was a profitable cash crop that could be cultivated with forced labor abroad, and shipped back to Great Britain to be manufactured into textiles. At this time, Britain was the largest exporter of textiles globally, and also the country with the largest global empire. In India the British East India Company took over cotton fields and took away competition by crushing domestic manufacturers. The imperial power forced its manufactured textiles onto India, so that its industry was more profitable. The manufacturing of cotton in India was not permitted – all cultivated cotton had to be shipped to Britain for textile production.
In 1793, American Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, catapulting US cotton production to the forefront of the industry. In a twenty year period, the American south quadrupled its cotton output, causing greater dependency on the plantation, and the brutal slavery that operated it. Plantation agriculture was now the largest sector of the Southern economy. Slaves were imported in horrifically large numbers for the cultivation of cotton, and other crops, until in 1807, when the United States outlawed the importation of human beings. Slavery became a staple of the South, causing increased tensions with the North of the country.
In the 1840s, America developed a cotton crop with stronger fibers. This advancement, coupled with the speedy production enabled by the cotton gin, turned British eyes to American cotton. Britain abandoned the increasingly unprofitable cotton fields in India and chose instead America’s slavery-produced crop. More demand for cotton meant more brutal conditions for slaves and, with tensions running high, cotton became one of many factors that led to the eruption of the Civil War.
Southern politicians would call the crop “King Cotton,” to emphasize its importance in the region’s economy. Southerners then vilified the North for wanting to stop slavery, and thus cotton, as it was cultivated. The Civil War was eventually won by the North, officially emancipating the slaves. However, cotton plantations still needed to be worked, and African-Americans needed jobs. Thus, share-cropping, or para-slavery, replaced human enslavement.
Today, the injustices of cotton production in the West have been eradicated. Instead of manual pickers, cotton is harvested by machine. The cotton picker removes the cotton without damaging the plant. In an hour, mechanized cotton production yields 500 pounds of cotton, while a man can only pick 15 pounds.
Though the west has rectified its shameful cotton harvest, the third world continues to rely on exploited labor. Uzbekistan in particular is notorious for human rights violations in its production of cotton. Cotton is essential to the country’s economy, often called the “white gold of Uzbekistan,” but to meet quotas, businesses use child labor. Though the government has issued a minimum work age of 16, companies still employ a labor force of children.
They are forced to work, often without compensation, for two months a year. As a result, they are denied access to schools, made to sleep in overcrowded barracks, and subjected to the potential health ailments of spending several hours working in the hot sun. The child laborers are expected to harvest 180 pounds a day, which at a rate of 15 pounds an hour, means a 12 hour work day. If the child does not meet his quota, his family must pay a fine.
Understanding the hardships behind the cotton harvest questions the morality of purchasing cotton merchandise. Many human rights organizations encourage consumers to only buy from companies which use cotton cultivated in the USA. Some businesses, like the Gap, refuse to use Uzbek cotton due to allegations of child slavery. Being an informed shopper is an effective way for individuals to regulate the cotton industries, and ensure that the injustices of the past are stopped.