Sunday, 8 December 2013

ALL ABOUT COTTON PART I: Tracing the Seeds of Fabric

We started thinking more about cotton as our clothing project places a strong emphasis on using natural fabrics. Almost all of our pieces produced in Vietnam are made with fabrics using cotton. The African wax prints we are using in Senegal are also made with cotton. At the same time, the ethical production behind all of our clothes has been a very important concern for all of us. Very early on in the project, we realised that there was a whole side to the clothes-making process which was completely closed to us. Although we go to the markets to individually select fabrics and work very closely with the tailors who sew together our clothes, there is a lengthy, complicated process that the fabrics have already gone through before even getting to the fabric market. To find out more, I spoke to my friend Isabelle, who works as Traceability Advisor for the Better Cotton Initiative. 
What are key ethical implications in the production of cotton – particularly for the textile market?

The first ethical implication here is environmental: Firstly, cotton is a crop requires a lot of water and is particularly susceptible to pests. This means that the cultivation of conventional cotton requires massive consumption of water and pesticides. In addition, since cotton is a cash crop, there are cases where natural forests are being converted for cotton cultivation, resulting in the loss of natural habitats. Aside from cultivation, there is also of course all the pollution caused by the treatment of cotton and dyeing of fabrics.
A cotton flower about to bloom (above), before it later becomes enclosed in a firm shell after which the cotton emerges (below).

The second is social:  In some countries, cotton is such an important cash crop, that there are incidences of forced labour and child labour used in the harvesting of cotton. For example in Uzbekistan, which is amongst the top ten cotton producers in the world, schools in rural villages are routinely closed for weeks so that students and teachers can be used and forced to harvest cotton.  

According to the International Trade Centre,  80% of raw cotton materials in Vietnam are imported with over three quarters of this coming from the United States. What are the barriers for a country like Vietnam in producing raw cotton materials?

Cotton grows best in warm climates, so there are no environmental reasons that prevent the cultivation of cotton in Vietnam. Actually, cotton is grown in Vietnam, but to varying quality and only at small levels, especially when compared to the global market. 

The top cotton producing countries include the United States, India, Pakistan and Brazil.  Then there is also China which is both the biggest producer and also importer of cotton to sustain its massive domestic textile production. There are many countries who are small players in the cotton production, but the reasons behind the ascent of the big global players are partly political and partly historical. The production of textile in India and Pakistan, for example, are closely tied to colonisation in the 18th century by the British, who dominated the textile market at the time. The historical origins of cotton production in the south of the United States are of course closely linked to slavery, which provided the original man-power for such countries to expand the size of their cotton industries to the size they are today.

For countries to become a big player in cotton there needs to be also significant and targeted government support, for example, by pouring resources into agronomic research and in some instances providing subsidies. Instead of focusing on cotton, Vietnam has prioritised the production of other cash crops like coffee which grow in a similar climate. 

How does the raw cotton materials normally arrive in Vietnam and what happens to the cotton after its arrival?

To answer this question, we need to understand first the different steps involved in the supply chain which transforms cotton into fabric.  

1. Cultivation and Harvesting: cotton is grown on a farm and harvested once a year.

Getting ready for harvest in India 
2. Ginning: where cotton seeds are separated from the lint and the lint is used to form cotton bales. This will often take place near the cotton farm, where one ginnery usually processes the raw cotton from the surrounding farms into bales. 

Ginning in India (above) and ginning in the United States (below). 

3. Spinning: where cotton from different bales are spun together to make different varieties and quality of yarn.

Spinning factory in India (above and below)

4. Weaving: where the yarn is weaved together to make fabric

Weaving in Turkey

5. Finishing: where the fabric is finished into cloth.

There are a few important points to keep in mind here. Due to the very different techniques, skills and equipment needed in each step, the process is usually broken up. Secondly, because cotton is not necessarily spun and woven in the same countries where it is cultivated and ginned,  international traders play a significant role in moving mass quantities of cotton, often between different continents. 

Raw cotton materials will normally arrive in Vietnam between step two and three – between ginning and spinning. So Vietnam will commonly receive bales of cotton lint, which will then be spun and weaved into cloth inside the country.

So in Senegal the cotton situation is almost the inverse to Vietnam. Although Senegal is not a major player on the global scale, cotton is Senegal’s second largest export.  In Senegal’s case, steps 1 and 2 will take place in the country, after which the cotton bales will often be exported for spinning, weaving and finishing overseas. 

Cotton forms the basis of so many different types of fabric such as denim and corduroy and a common fabric used in Vietnam called lanh.  What is done to cotton produce these different variations of fabric?

Differences in the end fabrics are partly influenced by two things
  • Firstly, the breed/type of cotton used – which can differ in the length and strength of lint and even colour
  • Secondly, the different yarn produced as a result of different methods of spinning. 
Thanks so much Isabelle for sharing all this information. In our next blogpost, we will talk more with Isabelle about the sustainable and ethical options for cotton production.

All photos are kindly thanks to Isabelle.

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