The international fashion industry was, like most things in America, built upon the backs of slaves. The contributions that slaves made to the cotton industry in the antebellum South laid the blueprint for success in America and abroad. 400 years later, cotton remains a huge money maker and a major pillar of the fashion industry, yet it's still cultivated by exploiting disenfranchised laborers around the world.
History books continue to discredit this truth: slave labor, mostly in the cotton fields of the South, is behind America’s first big business boom. While plantation owners in the South continued to garner insurmountable wealth from the cash crop, the slave labor behind their wealth enabled them to generate pure profits and accumulate generational wealth. Imagine all you can accomplish as a business when you don't pay your workers!
A narrative that is left out of the cotton conversation is that this crop, that was once seen as having more value than wool or silk, has become a thread (literally) in the creation of an international fashion industry. When cotton was extremely valuable as a traded good, it was only available to the wealthy as it took extensive hand labor in order to turn it into yarns, and clothing was primarily handmade. With the invention of the cotton gin, the spinning jenny as well as the sewing machine, the mass production of clothing was the new reality of the world and cotton became, and continues to be, the leading fiber in apparel worldwide.
But how has cotton contributed to the international fashion industry that no longer sees cotton as luxury but still relies on this crop heavily to create the garments we wear today? 400 years after the first slaves arrived in the colonies, the fashion industry has not really adapted new cotton cultivation practices in order to account for the lack of slave labor that transformed America from a young country into a nation of remarkable wealth.
According to a study done by UNICEF, unlawful child labor contributes to all stages of cotton cultivation in the modern era- from seed production to harvesting, yarn spinning, and putting garments together. While cotton fields in the United States don’t use child labor, American fashion companies that outsource their cotton garments are not being held accountable for the child labor practices happening during the international stages of their production.
Here's a complete timeline of the cotton industry, how it has developed, and how it became a lucrative business since the first cotton plantations until now. This is how the fashion industry has benefited from the continuous exploitative labor practices of cotton cultivation through the 21st century.
Cotton textiles were originally widely used in pre-Columbian, Meso-American and Andean civilizations but not traded on the international market. Outside of the Americas, India had been the primary exporter of fine cotton fabrics and textiles to Europe and other Asian countries while Ancient Egyptians were known to use cotton for their clothing. When Columbus "discovered" the Americas, he found cotton growing in the Bahama Islands.
While the colonies were primarily rural, farming communities, they didn't produce any more crops than were needed for individual families. When European occupation and colonization began in the Americas, cotton was primarily cultivated in Mexico and Peru but the environmental damage that came with the crop meant the need for more land. The American South came into play as soon as colonizers realized the soil and climate was suitable for cotton cultivation. When enslaved Africans arrived in the Virginia, this is where they were introduced into forced labor.
As the cotton fabrics calico and chintz gained popularity in Europe, the East India Company, founded in 1600, was exporting a quarter million pieces into Britain. With cotton becoming a hot commodity, the American plantations began experimenting with cotton cultivation as British industrialization was a catalyst for the focus on cotton textiles in linen and clothing.
By 1791, U.S. cotton production was still small, garnering around 2,000 pounds annually. The invention of the cotton gin can be credited for the boost in America's cotton industry as the new invention was a key starting point in the country's textile and apparel industry. With the rapid demand for cotton, more land, stolen from the Native Americans, was integrated into slave states, more fields were set aside for harvesting cotton, and the number of American slaves began to rapidly increase. Cotton tycoons mostly attributed for these large scale land purchases to account for booming business.
By 1801, the production of cotton reached 48.5 pounds per year. With this rapidly growing industry, the slave labor force transformed the cotton industry into America's first major business, making the South one of the most affluent regions.
Though the slave trade ended in 1807, the demand for cotton crops for garments was rapidly increasing thus increasing the South's need for a larger labor force. The internal slave trade led to the displacement and separation of millions of people in order to account for the cotton plantations riddled throughout the South. By 1831, the U.S. was exporting around half the world's cotton crops, harvesting 350 million pounds that year.
The riches that came with cotton production led to regional disputes leading to the Civil War against the North and South. The spike in favor for cotton apparel, along with the favor of American cotton crops, led to the demand for slave labor and cotton regions having two million enslaved people making up their populations.
During the Civil War, British industry accounted for the halt in cotton crops from the Americas by sourcing crops from India and Egypt. While Northern abolitionists called for a strike of cotton products, particularly clothing, this strike didn't stick due to the comfortability of cotton clothing and the expense that came with importing wool, linen or cambric clothing from Europe.
To account for the economic upheaval after the abolition of slavery, Southern landowners introduced sharecropping to continue their abusive cotton cultivation practices. When large plantations began to be subdivided, Black, as well as white farmers, worked the land with the promise from landowners that they would receive a portion of the crops while the owners provided tools, seeds and, possibly, a mule. While freed slaves saw this as an opportunity to support their families, the system was economically unfeasible since the landowners controlled every aspect of the crop cultivation, including buying the sharecroppers' crops at manipulative price points.
The United States continued to be a one-crop economy until around World War II when more opportunities to diversify arose. In the 1970s, the Chinese government began to encourage cotton growth by subsidizing, and cotton production in the country rose from 5,000 pounds to around 14,000.
The cotton industry has continued its exploitative practices to this day. Large American corporations source their textiles by the cheapest means possible. In this case, that means relying on cotton cultivation from countries that have loose laws regarding child labor. Children work at all stages: seed production in Benin, cotton harvesting and transferring pollen from plants in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India and garment manufacturing in Bangladesh.
Sources Include: The History of Cotton; Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain; Sharecropping; How Slavery Became America's First Big Business; In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.; The Clear Connection Between American Slavery and Capitalism; THE FASHION INDUSTRY IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST SUPPORTERS OF MODERN SLAVERY ACROSS THE GLOBE; A Long History of Exploitation in the Cotton Industry; They Wore Cotton; Cotton
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