Founder’s Letter: After Xinjiang, Rumors About Pakistan. Who’s Next?

I’ve written about this before, but all this noise and trauma around Xinjiang cotton is old news and a political yawn.  Like it or not, the cotton system in Xinjiang has been going on since both the Bush and the Obama administrations, which means both Democrats and Republicans knew about it and did not care enough or view it seriously enough to make it an issue. If my friends and I knew about it for decades then they surely did. No one seemed to be bothered. And brands and retailers knew — or could have known if they wanted to or if they were concerned about labor conditions at the farmgate.

But politics change and Xinjiang cotton is now banned for sale in America. But there’s apparently been no change for the farmers, no attempt to negotiate a better situation for them, no “clean up.” Just a ban. No long-term plan. Just a decision to forget about them (all 7.8 million of them) forever.

But that’s not what I want to write about today — other than to say politics drove the ban but real concern over farmers would have compelled the U.S., China and other nations to work together to find a long-term solution.

The term Majority World — now increasingly being used — defines what was once called the Developing World. It describes the community in terms of what it has (majority of humans on earth), rather than what it lacks.

There are 26 million or so cotton farmers in the world. Of that, there are a total of 12,000 in the USA; 1,300 in Australia;1,250 in Brazil and 45,000 in Greece. That means there are roughly 25,940,450 farmers from the Majority World and just 48,500 in the Minority World.

Recently I was told of concern about labor practices on cotton farms in Pakistan.

I found this a very peculiar concern and deeply disturbing since there are (I would bet my stake in Kingpins) labor issues in every cotton-growing country on earth. Why the sudden interest in Pakistan?

Are we certain that a farm in the U.S. is not mistreating its workers? Other than state laws, is there any system in place to check that? We all know we have laws that require everyone to pay their income tax, but do they?

Are we to believe that 9 million Indian farmers, whose average farm size is 2.4 acres, would pass any kind of social compliance standard? Would Peruvian farmers?  How about in Mexico, Turkey or Uzbekistan? Do we think all the farms are socially compliant? If not, why do we buy from them? Is there any good farm or bad farm on the social front available to the public? Why is it wrong to buy garments from non-socially compliant factories but it’s okay to buy cotton or fruit from farms where we have no idea how the workers are treated or how many hours they work?

Like China pre-Xinjiang, we all know in our bellies what’s going on in farming. Too many hours, low income, horrific conditions, etc. Farming is not pretty in Majority World nations. They don’t take their families to the Amalfi coast for summer vacation. Some farmers I know in Minority World nations have planes or vineyards and spend millions on efficient equipment. 

It’s an appalling notion that retailers and brands “could react” against farming nations whose farmers and cultures are different than ours and criticize their labor structures and or conditions. What do they expect?

The U.S. government acted on Xinjiang because they were mad at China. What other explanation can there be to a situation that was fine for two administrations or more and suddenly not so fine. 

If our industry wants to embed “CSR standards” for 26 million farmers, so be it. But they will need to pay double the price of cotton — or maybe triple. How can brands and retailers care about worker rights when they drive for the lowest prices — all the while imagining a 2-acre farm in any Majority World nation? If you think about it and imagine those farms, you will see kids helping parents, grannies pitching in and everyone asking friends to help for free. Or maybe even forcing those in debt to do work for free.

Those that are thinking this situation will change should think again. It is an undeniable fact that there are worker issues in every cotton nation in the world and no one I know has a solution for it or a plan. So if yesterday Xinjiang was a problem and today is Pakistan, tomorrow will be India, and then Africa, and so on. 

Our industry cannot have any stability if there is a constant threat of a sudden labor attack against farmers who are simply trying to survive. It’s easy to complain about an apparent problem but what we need are solutions, not bans and avoidance of the obvious.

– Andrew Olah

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