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The Horror of Cotton

Cotton should be classified in the same category as blood diamonds, nuclear weapons, and rhino horns. Cotton growers should receive the same amount of love as oil companies. Cotton is an environmental and social disaster that affects all seven billion of us.

I was squeezed in between two corpulent ladies in a shared taxi riding across Uzbekistan. As we were bumping along in the vintage Volga to our destination, we spotted some buses filled with people. The ladies were cheerfully pointing at the buses, enthusiastically explaining what was so remarkable about them. They were completely oblivious to the fact that my Russian vocabulary consisted of ten words. I heard about these buses before, but I thought they were just hearsay. It was for real: harvesting cotton was due, and randomly chosen people were being taken to the fields to pick the cotton without payment. The ladies were happy because that year it was not their turn to go. The system works on a rotation basis: this year teenagers of age 16 go, coupled with heart surgeons, subway drivers, and lumberjacks, the following year members of some other professions will do it.

A battered Volga shared taxi in Bukhara

The Volga of truth.

The backseat of the Volga allowed for another sobering observation. One side of the road was green with the cotton field going on forever. The other side was not irrigated: it was a barren desert. The contrast was striking, and gave an explanation why the Aral sea vanished completely. It is an environmental disaster that never actually made headlines, but one of the largest lakes in the world is no more. A brilliant Soviet masterplan diverted the two main rivers that fed the lake to grow cotton. The system is so well done that 70 to 85% of the water is wasted in the irrigation canals. This is a prime example of what happens when competent leaders make informed decisions, and then flawlessly execute their ideas. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan eventually abandoned the irrigation scheme and attempts are being made to save a tiny stretch of the northern part. The other river is continued to be used as a source of water for the cotton.

Uzbekistan is the sixth largest producer of cotton, and while not exactly a prime democracy, the symptoms are not unique to the country. The first five largest producers in 2012 were China, India, United States, Pakistan, and Brazil. Interestingly, none of these countries has a clean human rights record, and environmental concerns are hardly a top priority in any of them. Cotton is eventually woven  into a hideous fabric, which is then sewn to the shape of garments. While Bangladesh is not a major producer of the crop, its economy is dominated by the garment industry. Workers at sweatshops are not just underpaid, they perish by the hundreds in safety-related accidents. Cotton is mindlessly cheap. Its price cannot possibly reflect its true environmental and social cost.

Desert landscape with truck

Virgin lands to grow more cotton.

The real cost of the wonder crop is just one side of the equation. It is also a disaster at the individual level. Among all natural fabrics, cotton is easily the worst to wrap yourself into. It has one advantage: it is soft. Probably this is the only reason people prefer it over burlap.

Cotton is insensitive to temperature: it will make you feel terrible irrespective of the weather. It does not keep heat, so you will be losing the precious kilojoules your body produced to keep you warm in cold climate. In hot weather, cotton will ensure that moisture stays close to your skin, so you can feel as uncomfortable as you possibly can. Cotton also dries slowly, so once wet, it is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, ensuring a lasting stench that will follow you.

Silk worms at work

Jolly silk worms could be working on your next stench-free shirt. Make friends with them, and ask them to make one for you.

Cotton was never meant to last. It loses shape fast, so if you decide to continue wearing your cotton garment more than twice, it works to your disadvantage. The fabric also excels at retaining stains, small dust particles, and generally anything it comes in contact with. Your efforts to clean cotton fabric by hand or by machine are destined to fail. Both the chemical and physical composition of cotton is such that it refuses to clean.

Walk into a men’s department, look at the no-name brands, the so-so brands, the premium brands, or even the designer brands. There is only one fabric in the land. Thick, thin, crude, refined, iron-friendly, iron-hostile, but it is cotton all the same. The people out there in the desert are slaves to cotton, but figuratively most of us are. We have no choice, we must buy cotton, touch it, endure it, smell it, wash it, iron it, and then buy more. Cotton is death. Cotton is slavery. Cotton is horror.

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