Cotton: It’s Complicated

It’s true: I constantly lecture myself and others about reducing what you buy. A parent of one of my little 9-year-old students even told me that she couldn’t get her to buy a new pair of chappals–even though she needed them!–because I told them to reduce and avoid! Another piece of evidence that Garbology 101 works!

For the most part I stick to this ethos of avoiding. But when it comes to textiles, to clothes I have more trouble avoiding–especially in India. There is something about the patterns, the colours, the texture of clothes here that make them irresistible. So most of the time I avoid: I don’t go into shops that sell clothes. But then I find myself making an excuse: I have a dupatta, a kurta, a salwar that doesn’t go with anything so I’ll just pop into Fab India to match my item and leave right away. But, of course, it never goes as planned. I see so many gorgeous pieces with embroidery or block prints or my new obsession, kalamkari. And then the rationalising begins.


Increasingly, it seems that the American practise of fast fashion is creeping into India. I fear that in the not-too-distant future we may also adopt the practise of second-hand clothing landfills because there’s just too much to handle.

In the past few years, since I moved to India, my interest in the environment and agriculture has grown, largely influenced in my love and admiration for Vandana Shiva. And one cannot understand the agricultural crisis in India without examining cotton and the role that Monsanto’s GM seeds and pesticides have played (even though it’s clearly far more healthy, sustainable, and profitable to farm organically):

Cultivating genetically modified crops is more expensive than conventional crops because of the higher costs of the seed, technology fees, and the need for increased use of chemicals. In organic agriculture, the seeds are saved and cultivated the following season, and other necessary inputs for the seeds’ cultivation are provided on the farm. When genetically engineered seeds are cultivated, all of these inputs must be paid for and farmers will inevitably encounter serious financial troubles. Cultivating Bollgard cotton is estimated to cost Indian farmers nearly nine times more than cultivating a conventional variety. If the 21.4 million acres under cotton cultivation in India in 1997-98 were shifted to genetically engineered cotton, it would cost nearly Rs. 224.7 billion.

These increased costs can push farmers into bankruptcy and even suicide. The 1998 failure of the hybrid cotton crop in Andhra Pradesh due to pest devastation, and the subsequent suicide of farmers due to indebtedness–caused by spending nearly Rs. 12,000 per acre on pesticides–indicate how vulnerable our agricultural systems have become. –Vandana Shiva from Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, page 101.

This phenomenon of foreign corporations controlling Indian natural resources, including cotton, has roots that date back to the colonial era.

While the rapid technological innovations in the British textile industry were made possible only through the prior control over the resources and the market, the stagnation and decay of this industry in India was a result of the loss of political control first over the market and later over the raw material. The destruction of India’s textile industry necessitated the destruction of the skills and autonomy of India’s weavers. Often this destruction was extremely violent. For instance, the thumbs of the best Bengal weavers were cut off to cut off market competition when Indian hand woven textiles continued to do better than British mill products.–Vandana Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution, page 236.


In one Garbology activity, we examine the life cycle of a t-shirt. The exercise helps students understand the role that cotton plays in our lives, quite close to home. Some of the facts conveyed in the unit are:

♼ 25 million tonnes of cotton is grown each year; in t-shirt terms that amounts to 15 t-shirts per person, each one wasting 2,700 litres of water.

♼ Making cotton, especially white t-shirt cotton, requires boiling and bleaching with chlorine, which pollutes nearby water sources. Equally harmful are the colours used to dye the shirt (if not vegetable dyes) and chemicals to soften them.

♼ Some t-shirts we buy are made in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. But many others are made in factories in places like Bangladesh or Vietnam where people work in hazardous conditions and paid very little for their work. Then, of course, the t-shirts use energy to travel around the globe to stores where we purchase them.

♼ When they tear, t-shirts can easily be stitched. Or if it’s beyond the point of repair, they can also be used as rags. When we outgrow them, we can share them as hand-me-downs.

♼ In India, some organisations collect cotton to use them to stuff mattresses or quilts or even make the paper that we draw and write on.

There are a number of great films that can help us to understand our relationship to the farmers growing cotton, the weavers and stitchers making the garments, and us as consumers. Because India grows so much of the world’s cotton, these documentaries all focus on India, including 100% Cotton (below), Bitter SeedsUnravel, and the forthcoming Dirty White Gold. As Vandana Shiva says in the film below, what we learn from BT cotton (Bollgard) is that seeds are to be thrown “away” rather than saved or reused. In other words, this is yet another example of the U.S. teaching the world to cultivate a “throw away” society, something that has helped to create a seed famine that is deeply tied to the overall loss of native seeds that are cultivated for food.

Becoming aware of the serious–even deadly–repercussions the simple act of buying a cotton item has is the first step. Once we know this, it is crucial that we try to avoid and reduce, meaning not buy more clothes or linens when they are not needed. The cotton we have should be taken good care of so that it lasts as long as possible. Ideally, it would be great to buy quality, fair trade, organic, locally-produced (meaning not packaged and shipped although GoCoop seems to have an excellent selection of handloom, fair trade clothing items), and/or second-hand cotton whenever possible. It’s a lot harder to do this in India as labelling is not quite so explanatory and most organic cotton seems to be made for people wearing foreign-style fashion rather than saris or salwar kameez; also, in India, we have the same problem that people have in the West: organic cotton costs far more than regular cotton, something that is likely cost prohibitive to many Indians.


If the fabric rips, we should repair it. If it can’t be stitched, we should use it as a rag or use the pieces to stuff pillows or make up a cloth menstrual pad, or stitch several pieces together to make funky cloth shopping bags. If we can’t fit into it, we should share it or donate it to someone who can use it. There are also many innovative ideas for recycling / reusing fabric such as: using an old saree to purify water or using denim to insulate your home.

Here are some resources to help you out, if you’re in India, and you want to donate old clothes (many of the links below also collect used furniture and other household items for resale or charity or remaking):

Share at Door Step (SADS), Bangalore (they will pick up clothing for donation from your home or office)

Once Again, Bangalore

Reinvention, Bangalore (they collect old fabric and repurpose it in the form of anything from a quilt to drapes to purses and anything else you can imagine)

Stitched 2 Save 9, Bangalore (collects scraps of fabrics to make cloth bags that one can use in lieu of plastic when shopping)

Goonj, Bangalore and across the country (collects just about everything, including fabric, which they either donate to those who can wear it, use it to make menstrual pads, or create upcycled goods)

Outside of Bangalore there are a number of other outlets for donating clothes and other household items, which can be found on the India Activities website.



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