FEW COMMODITIES in the world today reveal as much about the spread of global capitalism as cotton. It connects growers, workers, traders, factory owners, and consumers in a supply-and-distribution network that stretches across the world.
A few centuries ago, cotton was barely known in Europe. When cloth from the East reached the continent in the seventeenth century, it began to gain popularity even as threatened European textile producers sought to resist the competition with the help of politicians and the church. In a Cambridge University Press blog post, Giorgio Riello, an academic and the author of Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World, wrote, “in the late seventeenth century a series of legal acts came first to limit and then to ban the trade and consumption of Indian cotton cloth in an attempt to protect the interest of European woollen, linen and silk manufacturers. Cottons were prohibited first in France (1686), in England (part prohibited in 1702 and totally in 1721), and later elsewhere in the Continent.”
Such restrictions disappeared over the next two centuries as European businessmen took control over the manufacturing of cotton. As the historian Sven Beckert explained in his book Empire of Cotton, during this period, “enterprising entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen in Europe recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry by combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers.” Cotton became a springboard for the industrial revolution.
Today, large corporations source their textiles from the cheapest factories possible. Factories in turn buy the cheapest cotton they can find. States compete with one another to attract corporations. “As a result,” Beckert wrote, “the protections that strong nation-states offered, to at least some of their workers, for at least part of the twentieth century, have been gradually eroded.”
Most countries that rely on cotton and garment export commodities exhibit low indicators of socioeconomic development. West Africa’s Burkina Faso, a major exporter of cotton, for example, ranks as number 183 out of 188 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures average life expectancy, education and income. The country is Africa’s biggest grower and exporter of raw cotton, and the state supports the industry with loans, technical assistance and seasonal price guarantees for cotton growers. Two hundred thousand farms, mostly small ones with fewer than 12 acres of land, produce between 400,000 to 700,000 tons of cotton each year. Directly or indirectly, 3 million people in Burkina Faso depend on cotton—nearly a fifth of the country’s population.
Bangladesh, one of the world’s top garment exporters, ranks one hundred and forty-second on the Human Development Index. The country’s garment industry made international news in 2013 after more than 1,000 people were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza, a building that housed several clothing factories. The incident brought textile workers’ rights into sharp focus and led to international calls for boycotts of clothes made in Bangladesh. But, as one leader of a small, clandestine union of textile workers pointed out, many in Bangladesh are wary of such boycotts since there are few other jobs for workers.
Some more developed countries, such as Romania, also compete in the cotton market. Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance of trade unions and NGOs, calls Romania “Europe’s cheap sweatshop.” Their research shows that many garment workers in Romania cannot earn the minimum wage without working overtime. In 2011, the country abolished collective bargaining at the national level, weakening unions’ ability to negotiate for fair pay and working conditions.
At the other end of the spectrum are the large-scale farms of the United States, which are supported by generous government subsidies. In past decades, many of these farms were cultivated by seasonal workers from neighbouring Mexico. Nowadays, much of this work has been taken over by large, expensive machines, some of which can in 15 minutes cultivate an area equivalent to the average cotton farm in Burkina Faso.
This project was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOŠT FRANKO, TEXT BY META KRESE
Jošt Franko is a documentary photographer based in Slovenia.