By Gina Conteh
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.