Cotton is a fibre harvested from the seed pods of a group of shrubs native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. They are close relatives of plants like mallows, hollyhocks and lime trees. Wild cotton plants can be found in Mexico, Australia and Africa. Ancient fragments of fibres have been found in the Indus valley (current Pakistan and India) and in Peru, dating from between 6000-7000 years ago, showing it was cultivated in both the New and Old World.
It is the most widely used fibre in clothing today. 25 million tonnes are produced per year, accounting for 2.5% of the world’s arable land. The USA grew rich on the cotton industry, which is also heavily linked with the slave trade, and remains the world’s 3rd biggest producer of cotton.
Cotton is linked to several worldwide environmental issues. Cotton is a very thirsty plant – requiring 8-10 thousand litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton. The cotton industry also requires a large amount of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. There are a few organic cotton farmers.
In China the harvesting of cotton by hand is still linked with forced labour (slavery), while in many developing countries the crop is also harvested by hand, and sold as a cash crop. Cotton production is incredibly important as it provides an estimated income for a billion people across the world, including 100 million smallholder farmers.