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Making clothes for profit kills workers and wrecks the eco-system

The capitalist model for producing clothes – from start to finish, field to shop – is a global blight. It puts at risk not only garment workers, but textile workers, cotton farmers, retail workers and the global eco-system itself.

In Bangladesh, where over 1,100 workers were victims of industrial murder in the Rana Plaza collapse, the government helped employers keep wages down and unions in check. A decision to raise the minimum wage in the wake of the disaster won’t make a lot of difference.

One factor in keeping wages down in both Bangladesh is climate change. Thousands of people have moved from coastal areas to Dhaka in search of work because family-based fishing and agriculture is being wiped out by coastal erosion and collapsing fish stocks.

In Cambodia, where three workers were killed in a shoe factory fire earlier today, more than half a million people work in clothing manufacture. Many are driven into the factories by a massive land clearance programme.

Nearly a million hectares of land have been leased or sold to private companies for the development of agro-industrial plantations, much of it palm oil for bio-fuels. The companies, either Chinese or owned by members or cronies of the government, are ruthlessly clearing forest and jungle and destroying the livelihoods of local people.

Cotton is one of the world's most environmentally damaging crops. One kilo of cotton fabric grown by industrialised methods contains as much as 10,000 litres of fresh water. Cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants).

Most cotton is produced by smallholder farmers, but to compete in the world market they have been coerced into using industrialised seed and chemicals. Their working conditions are dangerous and the chemicals pollute their water supplies. They are in effect the ruthless exploiters of themselves and their families. Where there are larger producers, forced indentured labour and child labour, is common.

Exactly the same oppressive and inhuman working conditions prevail in cotton ginning and cotton cloth manufacture.

All these millions of workers – cotton growers, textile workers and garment workers – are feeding a profit-driven market frenzy. UK consumers buy 2.15 million tonnes of new clothing and shoes each year and send over 1.4 million tonnes to landfill. There the cotton and wool rot down eventually, but the synthetic fibres remain for many decades, leaching chemicals in the land and water courses.

People are conned into joining this marketing trick. Nothing is made to last, the clothes are inappropriate for our climate and massive spending on branding and advertising are needed to draw us into a belief that we must constantly replenish our wardrobes.

This is all coming to an end however, with a collapse in sales of clothes and shoes across Europe. Many retailers are facing bankruptcy and their low-paid, part time staff thrown on to the unemployment lines. As this feeds back down the production chain, millions of production workers will suffer.

There is an alternative. The Better Cotton Initiative has shown that it is possible for growers to reduce their costs whilst still producing the same quantity of cotton, using conservation methods of agriculture instead of frequent applications of chemicals.

They are supporting farmers to group together to share expertise, and also to improve their communities and family lives. Making this the mainstream, however, will be achieved in the teeth of opposition from the agri-chemical giants and their government supporters.  

Set free from the global trade profit treadmill, co-operative approaches could transform all the other elements of the production chain. Textile mills working co-operatively rather than competing to be the cheapest, can produce the textiles we need for clothes, as well as all the medical and industrial cotton products we cannot do without.

Clothes made to last by garment workers, who control their own factories and can develop direct connections with those who buy the clothes they make, cutting out the fashion fraud, will have an incentive to produce products made to last rather than disposable junk.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
16 May 2013

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