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The true cost of cotton

Unravelling the shameful human and environmental costs of growing genetically-modified cotton is the real challenge, not trying to grow more of it on the moon, writes Simon Constantine.

Imagine this as an opening scene: a remote station on the far side of the moon; lifeless, airless, cold and dark. Eerie music plays as we zoom in; the stark lights of the space station flicker as remote sensors blink and whirr.

What’s this?

Against a backdrop of moon dust and formica worktops, a splash of vivid green: a fragile seed reaches towards false sunlight lamps, like a newborn infant reaching for its robot parent. A label identifies the plant – it’s a solitary cotton seed; sprouting, growing, alive in this distant void. Just for a moment it’s the highest-achieving cotton seed of its kind ... before lunar night falls, the temperatures drop and it shrivels and browns in its tray.

This isn’t science fiction though – this past week China successfully germinated cotton on the moon, shortly before a freezing lunar night killed it!

Now, there are many ‘Kubrick-esque’ metaphors we can read into this; the futility of man, an existential feeling of dread that the cotton seed represented Theresa May’s Brexit deal and so on, but I’m not going there today. Instead, it struck me as slightly ironic that humanity now has the capabilities of growing cotton on the moon when, here on Earth, its cultivation already seems more alien than ever.

I was shocked when our expert textiles and gifts buyer Maria Feast-Vine casually mentioned that over 90% of all the cotton grown in China, India and America is now GMO (genetically modified). And having had a chat with world-renowned environmental activist, the Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, when she came to our Showcase event in 2017, I was already aware that the business model for GM cotton was driving farmers to suicide; some, horribly, by drinking the very pesticides that were causing them so much financial distress.

A glimmer of hope

The hopeless cycle of sterile seeds and chemical dependency meant they were indebted (and shackled) to the companies who had developed these products. Then Maria told me that, during recent trip, she had seen organic cotton that, using rainwater irrigation and soil- saving methods, used substantially less water; a big deal when you see that the Aral Sea has all but dried up from irrigating cotton crops in Uzbekistan, and when she told me that, I saw a glimmer of hope.

In fact, it’s easy to tie yourself in knots when worrying about cotton.

As a cosmetics company, we aren’t the obvious choice to become expert in it. However, through the introduction of our Knot-Wraps – packaging-free gifting, inspired by the art of Furoshiki in Japan-  and tote bags, we have become a big buyer of fabrics in general.

From vintage scarves to recycled drinks bottles we now have quite the range of materials to work with. All these efforts are to encourage slower, more sustainable use of materials especially when you pick that special gift for someone. There is a delicate art to wrapping a gift in a beautifully designed scarf that can be used time and again and lightens your carbon footprint into the bargain. Not only this but it gives us the opportunity to partner with artists such as those at social enterprise, Arthouse Unlimited (previously Arthouse Meath) whose social enterprise provides a space for creativity to those with complex epilepsy and learning disabilities; perhaps my favourite design so far is that Gorilla wrap!

If we return to our cotton thread we can also visit South India where women’s cooperative RE:WRAP produce our ever popular Fighting Animal Testing bags, empowering women through the local textile industry, paying fair wages and supporting local farmers in organic cotton growing too.

So, although it’s a great achievement to grow cotton far from Earth, I can only really see myself celebrating when we grow cotton back here in a way that supports communities and gives more back to the planet; more than it is currently taking. In fact, at that point, I’d be over the moon…

Photo credits: 

Main photo: Moon by Luc Viatour Commons 
Shrinking Aral Sea by Nasa Earth Observatory 
(Aral Sea: left 2014 and right 2000, 1960 extent black line)

Aral Sea before and after - Nasa

I was already aware that the business model for GM cotton was driving farmers to suicide; some, horribly, by drinking the very pesticides that were causing them so much financial distress

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