Moving beyond organics: Understanding the place and space of brown cotton

Responsible production and consumption — the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 — has become an increasingly important conversation within the ‘slow fashion’ movement, especially since the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh.

Consumers have cast a spotlight on cotton textile production against the broader domain of sustainable fashion.

Some of the world’s largest fashion brands faced allegations of producing cotton through forced labour in Uyghur communities in Xinjiang, China in the spring of 2021. When consumers asked how they could identify if they were wearing clothes made with cotton from this region in China, journalists Vanessa Friedman and Elizabeth Paton said in a New York Times article:

You don’t. The supply chain is so convoluted and subcontracting so common that it is often hard for brands themselves to know exactly where and how every component of their garments is made.

The start of the slow fashion movement has certainly helped raise consumer awareness about the environmental toll and human rights violations in the conventional cotton industry. Consumers continued to question the cost of clothing through the COVID-19 pandemic, as images depicting mountains of used and unsold clothing went viral

Worryingly, organisations within the industry continue to struggle with the most fundamental questions:

  • Where and how is the cotton grown?
  • Who is processing the cotton and in what conditions?
  • Where do these textiles and garments go after they are sold?

Despite the complexity of these challenges, organic cotton remains positioned as a panacea for many of the ills of the fast fashion industry and the slow fashion movement. And for good reason.

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It is an opportunity for farmers, who can spend less on synthetic herbicides and earn more for the crops in the market. It reduces the impact on soil and water by eliminating much of the pollution inherent in conventional cotton production.

The benefits of going organic can be tangible for both producers and consumers. But while advocating for organic cotton is important, the organic movement is unlikely to succeed in disentangling producers and consumers from the social and environmental challenges that have emerged within the industry.

In India, the world’s biggest producer of organic cotton since 2015, only 2.29 per cent of total cotton production is organic. Most farmers growing and selling cotton in India are smallholders who remain in vulnerable economic positions as a result of commodity markets.

The expense and effort to become certified organic is often out of reach. Given the challenges smallholders face in going organic, consumer fixation on organic as the only important qualifier of the cotton clothing they buy may be short-sighted.

Agricultural and production practices that are rooted in a particular place may not necessarily meet the criteria for organic certification. Yet, these practices demonstrate the diversity of sustainability and possibility of decolonising cotton. If cotton is to retain a place as a sustainable fibre, we need to broaden our search beyond organics to understand other cotton options that are eco-friendly.

India’s brown cotton

Seeds are a good place to start. Only a few varieties of cotton, an incredibly diverse species, are seen in mainstream fashion. The prominence of mainstream cotton varieties grew over time as today’s global markets were created.

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Indigenous cotton, which is also called desi cotton or brown cotton because of its natural colour, used to be the majority of cotton in India. But it is now grown by very few farmers.

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