The Forgotten Costs of Our Feminist T-shirts By Sangeeta Waldron
Cotton is the world’s oldest commercial crop and one of the most widely used natural fibres in the global fashion industry. Yet, in spite of its huge importance to the global textile industry, world market prices have been in long- term decline since the 1970s due to – reductions in production costs, strong competition from synthetic fibres and the payment of huge subsidies by rich cotton producing countries, notably, the US, China and the EU – to protect the domestic production of cotton and related industries. [Picture Credit: Etsy]
It would be satisfying to know we are wearing feminist T-shirts that are actually empowering India’s silent female cotton pickers and all cotton workers around the world.
But crucially, the industry has generally failed to focus on the supply chain to ensure that those who grow and pick their cotton also receive a living income. Up to 100 million smallholder farmers in more than 100 countries worldwide depend on cotton for their income and are at the very end of the supply chain, largely invisible and without a voice, ignored by an industry that depends on their cotton.
A woman’s status in India’s rural patriarchal society is often considered inferior, but there is hope being offered through CottonConnect’s REEL Cotton Programme, which has been running over a three-year period in Gujarat
Right now cotton slogan feminist T-shirts are popular – blame Trump or just the current political climate as a whole – but that’s what luxury fashion houses think women want right now. Yet, ironically, India’s female cotton workers are underpaid or unpaid; which is neither fair or pro-feminist.
Added to this, a woman’s status in India’s rural patriarchal society is often considered inferior, but there is hope being offered through CottonConnect’s REEL Cotton Programme, which has been running over a three-year period in Gujarat, India – the world’s second largest cotton producer. It has been transforming the area through its gender equality training programme, educating women across a range of topics, including health, education, social rights, sustainable cotton growing, best practice for farming methods, market demand and supply chains.
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Take the story of Khaileshben Mukher Thakor, married and a mother by 18. She worked for many years on her husband’s ten acres of cotton-producing land, before enrolling with CottonConnect, which she claims has dramatically changed her life – “I had no confidence, but through this programme, I realised I could help my family. With the money I saved from what I learnt, we have built a new house, bought a tractor and pay for my child’s studies. My mother-in-law has respect for me and gives me full rights to the house.” The changes here have given these women the confidence to have a voice and be heard, to invest in their own children’s education and, ultimately, sow the seeds of a healthier, better-educated and more liberal community.
Critically, CottonConnect is also working with global brands ensuring supply chains foster environmental sustainability and provide fair social benefits for smallholder farmers, local communities, retailers and brands. It is providing the tools and networks for global brands to work towards meeting and exceeding the United Nation’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal, which is focused on gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.
FAIR AND STABLE
Fairtrade too has made a difference and buying clothes made with Fairtrade Cotton means helping low paid farmers around the world, ensuring the farmers receive a fair and stable price for their cotton.
However, we need to keep insisting that cotton farmers and workers are an important part of the fashion supply chain, as cotton is failing to provide a sustainable and profitable livelihood for the millions of smallholders that the textile industry depends on. It would be satisfying to know we are wearing feminist T-shirts that are actually empowering India’s silent female cotton pickers and all cotton workers around the world.
Sangeeta Waldron writes on women and children; sustainability; climate change; social enterprise and social entrepreneurs