Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bless my cotton

I’ve been reading a rather interesting book called Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes From by Fred Pearce, published in 2008. He’s a British journalist who's traced all the products he uses – food, clothes, electronic goods, wood, gold, metals and so on – back to their roots to find out where they come from and under what conditions they're sourced, mined, manufactured and farmed. He focuses a fair bit on the people in the supply chain and it's a real eye opener.

I’ll never remember all the facts (there are loads of them on every page), but it’s quite scary how many of the things we consume on a daily basis have suspect origins – illegal logging in rainforests, ridiculously low wages and long work hours, intimidation and illegal land grabs, sweatshops, government corruption, entire ecosystems wiped out... and mainly in poorer, developing countries.

But there are positive flipsides, such as the relative liberation of rural Bangladeshi women through sweatshops, believe it or not. It’s not all doom and gloom, particularly for those who benefit from supplying the west. The richest and most successful businesswoman in the world used to work in a Chinese sweatshop before she started importing waste paper to recycle into product packaging. But the overall impression I’m getting from the book is that the Third World is providing or making most of the products the western world consumes, simply because it’s cheaper that way – although more often than not it seems to be to the detriment of the developing countries in the long run.

Pearce takes into account not only the environmental implications of the journeys our goods travel from raw material to finished product, but the social and economic angles as well. And he made me realise that I really do need to take all three aspects into account when considering my conscience.

There’s a section about cotton, where the author tries to trace his T-shirt and socks from UK retailer M&S back to their origins. I had no idea Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest cotton exporter after the US. Or that cotton has basically led to the country’s environmental and health downfall. In Australia, the cotton industry has cleaned up its act as much as it can in a country where water is in short supply – cotton is a thirsty crop – by improving their farming practices and cutting down on pesticides and chemical sprays. Still, it got me thinking about the cotton we use in our craft, be it 100% quilting cotton fabric or cotton embroidery threads. Where does this cotton come from and can I use it with a clear conscience? Under what conditions is it grown and processed into the products I use?

I looked at various brands’ websites, but naturally they focus on the final product rather than the origin of the raw material or manufacturing process. I considered emailing or calling up some of the companies to ask, but I doubt I’d even get a response. If a seasoned journalist like Fred Pearce couldn’t get to the bottom of his cotton socks...

Does anybody know where our needlework suppliers get their cotton from? Should we be concerned? Is there an “ethical cotton” standard manufacturers can obtain that entitles them to mark their products with a symbol or logo, giving consumers the choice to use ethically sourced products? Or would this simply give suppliers an excuse to double their prices without actually helping the people before them in the supply chain? I haven’t seen anything like this out there, but maybe there is?

Anybody have anything to add to this train of thought?

1 comment:

Ruth O'Leary said...

Wow, I'd never thought of that. What a thought-provoking post. I've never considered whether the threads I use are ethically sourced, or how to find ones that are.

I suppose what would be needed is an equivalent to the 'Fair Trade' scheme, or maybe an extension of it.

If enough people started asking the manufacturers about their sources and processes they may begin to take it seriously and make changes - after all, it was people-power that made the food industry start to clean up their act.