Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Cotton Isn’t As Comfortable As You Think.

Illustration+by+Rachel+Choi.
Illustration by Rachel Choi.

Ethical consumption doesn’t exist. I found out last summer in New York when the world’s leading denim heads told me so—this was the Kingpins Show; a two-day long international denim exhibition in Basketball City where industry professionals discuss sustainability. I didn’t want to believe them, but I do now. That doesn’t mean I want to accept it either; after all, it would be nice to believe we can shop our way into clothing kumbaya and dress to the nines?

Because you are wearing forced labor—I promise. And if it’s not the cotton fibers harvested by enslaved people, it’s fabric made by children. I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s become the industry standard. 

This is an old story, and I’m not here to beat a dead horse—I’m here to talk cotton. 

Xinjiang province is a cotton stronghold. The local mills produce 80 percent of China’s cotton supply and 20 percent of all the world’s cotton—which just goes to show how enmeshed China is within global cotton networks. One standard cotton bale weighs 500 pounds and takes 660,000 gallons of water—which is an absolute mindfuck when I think about how Xinjiang accounted for nearly 25 of China’s 30.7 million bales of cotton harvested last year alone.

So it’s a pretty big deal when Xinjiang cotton is banned by every major country and blacklisted from international brands after countless accusations of alleged forced labor

Xinjiang is home to 11 million Uyghurs—an ethnic minority of Muslims living in China; of which, more than a million are detained in reeducation camps a la cotton gulag, subject to forced birth control, brainwashed, and beaten. Their only crime was being Muslim. The U.S. declared a state of genocide in 2021, and the a 2022 UN reportfiled China’s treatment of the Uyghur population under crimes against humanity. The Chinese government denies these claims: But saying “there are no human rights violations in Xinjiang” is like saying “there are no guns in Texas.”

Chinese officials justify their top-secrecy as a closed-loop bubble to prevent COVID-19 from spreading into factories and to protect workers—which is closed-loop bullshit. The truth is ugly; the fiber in your favorite t-shirt, your best pair of jeans, and comfy crewnecks was picked, cleaned, and finished by Uyghurs.

Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam will import raw cotton from China, spin it into yarn and then return it to China for garment manufacturing, where the finished product is sent back to Southeast Asia so it can be shipped worldwide. The complicated supply chain makes it easier for companies that are involved to dodge import restrictions. Most of these goods are made in China, and exported to the U.S. through other countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Sri Lanka.

It’s hard to compete with forced labor when China’s making money; why fix something that isn’t broken? I can get behind separating the art from the artist, but I can’t begin to understand separating China from cotton—they’ve been inseparable for decades, and still are. 

Peeling the onion only makes it smell worse.

Just because the label doesn’t say “Made in China” doesn’t mean it isn’t—cotton is hard to track down after it’s globalized. Xinjiang cotton still feels like, smells like, and looks like cotton—it’s not like Chinese cotton is distinctly yellow or smells like fried rice, it’s fucking cotton. You can’t really tell the difference when clothes are on the rack. 

Researchers at the Agroisolab in Jülich and the Hochschule Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, both in western Germany, found traces of Xinjiang cotton after performing isotope analysis on Puma and Adidas T-shirts, shirts by Hugo Boss and Jack Wolfskin, and a pullover by Tom Tailor. No one else has the time for that. 

As good as it feels to support brands like Patagonia, L.L. Bean, or other local brick and mortar boutiques, who don’t source their cotton from China—it’s not like customers genuinely feel bad buying from companies like H&M—otherwise they just wouldn’t. 

Really, it doesn’t matter. These people live across the ocean and speak a different language—this is not your problem. It’s a decades-worn system that’s older than all of our generations combined. It’s nice to think we can be self-righteous and buy clothes that don’t hurt people, but we’re still going to wear clothes, even if they might be tied to forced labor. 

A Changing Markets Foundation and Clean Clothes Campaign survey found that 51 percent of U.S. consumers would be disinclined to buy from brands that do not pay its workers a living wage—no shit. Captain Obvious would also add that genocide is unethical, but it’s not like the solution is to take off your clothes, set them on fire, and become a global nudist colony—we will always buy clothes. For the love of god, appreciate them.

Otherwise, the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles wouldn’t have called out Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, T.J. Maxx, Charlotte Russe, Marshalls, Ross, and Windsor for contracting with factories that paid about a $5–$6 hourly wage. Those factories aren’t in Bangladesh or Cambodia—they’re in L.A. Still, shopping has never been about wages. 

Let’s say I want jeans. 

Do I buy from the brand making upcycled jeans with 100 percent cotton and no fillers, but exclusively hand-stitched by kids in Cambodian sweatshops? Or American-made jeans manufactured by workers in unionized cubicles that use slabs of human flesh dyed blue instead of actual fabric—which gives it that signature smell? Or what if I do find the perfect company; domestic production, minimal carbon footprint, and a style I really like—just to find that buying one of anything will raw dog my bank account into fuck all. What if the CEO of the brand I’m currently browsing has more Title IX cases than pinto beans in my burrito? What if another brand signed a deal with Matty Healy and I’m a die-hard fan?

Fashion editor for Vogue, Maya Singer, offers another hypothetical: The ethically perfect running shoe costs $800, involves a six-month waiting list, and only comes in shit brown. There’s no physical store so I have to buy them online and hope my feet have the right amount of toes on them. Forgive us if we lose our fucking shit and just go to Foot Locker. 

My point is this: When we buy clothes, the first thing we think of isn’t I wonder how much the person who made this got paid per hour, or—holy shit is this genocide cotton? Values compete, especially when one’s ethics are juxtaposed with things like form, function, style, price, etc. 

What people say they want from brands can’t be given in a one-size-fits-all answer poll question asking: To what extent would you support a brand that doesn’t pay their workers? Hello—what the fuck am I supposed to say like; it depends on how good their fits are—I simply don’t. These companies make us feel guilty first for “participating” in their mess, and then expect special treatment when they do the bare minimum: It’s not marketing, it’s manipulation. 

I think the way we talk about ethical consumption is unrealistic and flawed. Why should we be rewarded for wearing a company’s latest collection of virtue signals? I’m not disregarding the significance of forced labor, but it’s not something you and I should feel guilty about. I’m not the one signing with sweatshops, H&M is. The least I can do is my research; our responsibility to the clothes we buy is wearing them out—and if you’re buying more fits than you can wear, I’d urge you to do more than just throw them out. 

We’re all born in sin, but that doesn’t mean we can’t forgive each other.

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About the Contributor
Bryan Liu, Assistant Opinion Editor
Bryan Liu (they/them) is a sophomore journalist from Jersey who micro-doses on pop culture one social commentary at a time. With a background in living arts, Bryan's feature writing also explores the greater Boston area and Emersonian culture. Outside of the Beacon, they climb big rocks and can play every musical instrument.
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