The Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan happens to be the second largest exporter of cotton in the world. One third (1/3) of its population works in the billion dollar industry, and a large majority of those individuals are children. In addition to concern over children’s rights, the situation presents an emerging environmental crisis tied to irrigation and natural resource management. With an over-reliance on dangerous pesticides and economic dependence on cotton, the country is in a difficult position. Yet, Uzbekistan is not solely at fault. Western companies are also complicit by negotiating business with industry officials and consistently purchasing product. Similarly, Western consumers (e.g. Americans and Europeans) reinforce the situation by continuing to purchase Uzbek-grown cotton and demanding price-quality paradigms at such a high human and environmental cost.
How do we navigate ourselves out of such complex socio-eco-nomic mess?
Here are some three simple steps that we as consumers can do to make a difference:
1) Ask your retailer where your cotton has been sourced. If they don’t know, chances are some or all came from Uzbekistan, or some other country where human rights or environmental abuses are part of the production equation. There are plenty of fair trade, organic options out there, seek them out, buy them and promote them to others.
2) Be wary of inexpensive product. If something is cheap, it is probably too good to be true. Cotton is one of the most expensive, labor, pesticide and water intensive crops to grow in the world. It is associated with huge environmental and human costs. If the end product is very inexpensive, chances are someone or something (e.g. natural resources) is paying the real price. Think before you shop. You can start to change the world through your purchases.
3) Buy green, buy organic and buy fair trade. When laborers and craftsmen are given a fair, living wages, the end product will reflect this cost. In addition, when fabrics are organically grown without harmful pesticides, they can be more expensive to maintain and grow. As conscientious consumers, we need to be willing to assume some of this cost. It’s the best way to drive the market toward greater sustainability and equitability. If enough demand existed, even Uzbekistan would move toward organic crops and higher wage production. The market is more powerful than one might think.
Finally, I encourage you to watch this short video directed, produced and supported by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF):
White Gold: The True Cost of Cotton. It is truly enlightening.
Credits: the Title of this blog was inspired by the above video. Thank you, EJF!
Photo source: The Environmental Justice Foundation