Cotton. The world’s favourite fibre. Makes great clothes, comfortable bed sheets and lovely towels; it’s useful stuff.
Of course it makes classy bags for life too – light, strong and easy to print on. But should you be buying Fair Trade cotton? How does Fair Trade work anyway. And what’s the story with organic cotton? These are useful if not complex questions that more and more retailers are having to consider. So we asked bags for life guru, David Gould, the original founder of WBC bags for life, to give us his perspective. This is what all the fuss is about.
Cotton is a fantastic natural fibre – it’s versatile and comes in many weights. The lightest of our cotton bags for life weighs just 5oz, and our heavier cotton carriers are 10oz. We even make designer totes in 14oz to order. Cotton comes in many weaves too – calico, poplin, canvas, drill, gabardine to name but a few.
To add to the variables, there are different ways to grow the cotton crop and produce the textile too: the standard way, the organic way and the fair trade way. Each have their rival claims of greatness which can be a bit confusing at times. Some of our buyers specify organic from the outset. Others are happy with the much cheaper standard item which, like all our bags for life, is made with the highest ethical care.
For all its versatility, cotton has a some serious ecological drawbacks. First, it needs to be sprayed with pesticides. And sprayed intensively – cotton accounts for around 2.5% of the world’s arable farmland but about 25% of the world’s insecticide use. These pesticides (with sinister names like aldicarb, monocrotophos and deltamethrin) are poisonous. If not handled correctly, farm workers suffer health problems and groundwater can be polluted.
Cotton needs heavy irrigation. The WWF estimated it takes 20,000 litres to make 1 kg of fibre (enough to make 1 T-shirt and 1 pair of jeans. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, Pakistan’s farmers alone used 2,890 billion litres of water just to grow cotton for Ikea – that’s nearly half of the total annual water consumption of England and Wales alone.
What’s more, conventional cotton farmers use lots of fertiliser. According to some estimates, about 500g (1 lb) of fertiliser is needed to grow the cotton for just one T-shirt. The increasing interest in organic cotton is understandable – a cotton that’s grown without pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers – organic cotton is much better for the planet. Pests are controlled by their natural predators; the soil is nurtured by manure, compost and nitrogen-fixing inter-crops.
But organic cotton is also more expensive. For a start, the farmer must set aside the land for three years to make sure it is free from chemicals. The cost of seed is higher, and yields are lower, partly because the land is rotated to ensure fertility. The best organic cotton is also irrigated with rainwater only, to avoid extracting precious groundwater. And the spinning, weaving and dyeing must only use organic additives too – again, more expensive.
The odd thing is, there’s actually no difference in quality between conventional cotton and organic cotton – in fact, you can’t tell the difference. But at least you know the fabric has been produced in the most environmentally-friendly way possible.
Fair trade cotton is not necessarily organic. Fair trade is about people, not product. Fair trade cotton simply means that everyone involved – from seed merchant to farmer to weaver – receives a fair price for their work (typically, about 10% over the market price). What’s more, consumers pay a Fair Trade Premium which helps to fund social, environmental and economic development projects for workers and producers.
The fair trade system relies on careful documentation of every stage of production, and producers must pay a central organising body (like the Fair Trade Foundation in the UK) some hefty fees. Not every farmer can afford these fees – critics say this excludes some very deserving producers. And there are varying reports as to how much of the premium actually filters down to the community.
At WBC we’ve thought long and hard about Fair Trade and we’re not convinced – yet – that it’s really meaningful for the Indian cotton growers that we want to support. Instead, we pay a fair price in the fabric market for all our conventional and organic cotton, and we pay above-industry average wages to our artisan bags for life makers in India. Most importantly we are supporting everyone involved – directly.
What’s more, by setting up our own WBC Foundation (about which, more soon), we will directly help the community where our bags are made – with no administrators, officials or pen-pushers taking a cut.
That’s why we don’t supply fair trade cotton bags for life. However, whether you choose our standard bags, or are able to go the extra mile for organic, always rest assured that all our eco bags for life have the impeccable ethical credentials you’d expect.