Cotton: An Abridged History

How long has consumption been an issue?

I thought fast fashion was a modern consumption problem, but really the desire to transform our bodies through clothing and the means to attain it is what spark the industrial revolution. In the 18th century, Britain improved weaving technology to create fabrics at an affordable price, which lead to the new working and middle classes having a demand for the fabric. To meet this new demand for cotton to support the working and middle classes America saw the opportunity to increase the economic status by providing the cotton that the British so desired. This need couldn't have been met in the U.S. without the enslavement of close to 4 million people to do the work necessary for cotton production.


1. American Revolution (late 1700's)- slavery is legal in New England.

2. British Industrial Revolution (1760-1860)- technology drastically increased, people moved to cities, a working and middle class was developed, more people with money to spend increased the demand for cheap cotton clothing that was previously limited to the wealthy

3. Cotton Gin implemented (1807)- while this invention drastically improved and reduced labor in the cotton process- its efficiency increased the demand for raw cotton, which increased the number of people that were enslaved in the cotton labor.

4. By 1860 the South had increased their cotton exports from 2 million pounds in 1791 to 1 billion pounds of cotton.

5. Post Civil War the South remained a top exporter of cotton (with Northern support) through share cropping, plantations, and small farms. *While some former slaves were given small farms for share cropping the relationship was very hostile between the white farmers and free slaves. The white farmers worked hard to continue to oppress by keeping secrets on how to kill the boil weevil that was destroying crops and lending that was meant to keep the farmers depended on the white farmers.

One historian Harold D. Woodman summarized the stature of cotton, “If the war had proved that King Cotton’s power was far from absolute, it did not topple him from his throne, and many found it advantageous to serve him.

While I would have expected that the Civil War would have toppled the cotton industry it strengthened it. Now the U.S. is still the leader in cotton production, producing 57.6 billion pounds of cotton. I think it is important to note that some reasons that the U.S. has maintained its cotton dominance are 1) government subsidies 2) university collaboration for research 3) dominating in GM cotton seed sales (Monsanto)

Modern Cotton Production

Synthetic chemicals v. Organic

In Texas each year they produce about 50 million acres of cotton and only 20,000 acres of organic cotton. This significant difference and the difficulty in finding organic cotton clothing had me wondering is there that much of a difference?

In the first report they talked about pesticide (animals, pests etc) use falling but herbicide (kills specific plants, weeds) increasing meaning that per acre cotton chemicals haven't decreased. Annually the cotton industry spends close to $3 billion on synthetic chemicals of which many of these have been found to persist in the environment in groundwater, lakes, rivers, soil and have now been making their way into the food chain.

Organic cotton can reduce the impact to the environment by reducing the amount of synthetic chemicals that enter the water way, use less energy, and improve soil quality, and reduces the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals that can persist in the clothing.

While organic cotton is better than synthetic pesticide/ herbicides cotton, the crop uses a lot of resources and purchasing it should be limited to when you need new items.