The Human and Climate Costs of Our Perpetually New Clothes- Part 3 (of 4)

PART 3—Going Global in the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century

By the time the cotton mills in North Carolina were shut down, much of the country’s textile work had already moved overseas. But today, the United States is still the world’s second largest producer and exporter of raw cotton. Producing roughly 4,000 thousand metric tonnes per year, today cotton is grown in 17 states with Texas accounting for 45% of that yield.{1}

India is the world’s largest cotton producer averaging 5,770 thousand metric tonnes per year and China comes in after the U.S. as third averaging 3,500 thousand metric tonnes per year. Of the top ten cotton producers in the world, India, the United States, and China grow considerably more raw cotton than the rest of the producers.

In addition to being the third largest producer of cotton in the world, China is also importing more of the world’s cotton than any other country. Thirty-eight percent (38%) of China’s imported cotton comes from the United States and 14% comes from India. That is, 52% of the third largest producer’s imported cotton comes from the first and second top producers.

Then it’s not too surprising to see that China, the third largest producer of raw cotton in the world, is not even on the list for the top 10 cotton exporters in the world. The United States grows a little more than a third of the world’s exported cotton (36%) but four of the top five markets for U.S. cotton are in North America. One-third (33%) of U.S. cotton is imported by Honduras, 18% by Mexico. China is the fourth largest cotton importer of U.S. cotton with its intake quadrupling between 2000 and 2010.

India is the second largest exporter of the world’s cotton but at 15% of the world’s total exports, much of India’s homegrown cotton is used by its own textile industry. Clearly China is using the majority of its homegrown cotton domestically and adding to its supply with the largest amount of imported cotton globally. This is understandable given that China is the world’s largest exporter of cotton garments. The cotton it does export goes to Asian countries that also make cotton garments for export around the world. Many of the garments made in China and these other Asian countries are being sold in the United States where a good bit of the cotton for those garments was originally grown.

Along with all the out-sourced manufacturing from the U.S. and other western countries came the need for tens of thousands of new factories. Once these were constructed, the necessary coal-powered plants came online at an unprecedented rate, particularly in China and India. Many of the fossil fuel-burning factories in China and India are producing goods for the western countries that stopped manufacturing these goods for themselves.

Once again, we have to go back to the American Civil War and the associated shut down of the cotton supply to understand the ramifications for elsewhere around the globe. In this case it was Russia that reacted, taking over all of what is today Central Asia by the mid-1870s. With the same ill-conceived approach taken by others before them, Russia converted an area successfully growing cotton interspersed with grain and vegetables on family farms into a mono-cropping region with the peasants commanded to grow cotton for export (versus home-weaving) and plunging those peasants into an irreversible state of poverty and debt.

As elsewhere, waterways were dammed or redirected, destroying ecosystems and fostering desertification where once stood oasis settlements. Even the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea, now holds one-tenth of its previous water volume due to redirection for intensive irrigation in support of cotton production. (The sea is bordered by Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan while its basin adds Tajikistan and parts of Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.){2} Cities that stood on the sea’s edge are now over ninety miles from its shoreline. With the loss of such a large body of water, today’s summers are hotter and drier and the winters colder. The dust storms in the area are legendary as the former lakebed becomes airborne, annually spreading for miles 43 million tons of agri-pollutants that had once drained into the sea. Chronic lung disease and much higher cancer rates are the result for the people of the area, including the highest rate of throat cancer in the world. This disease and desertification accompanying what the United Nations declares as one of the worst environmental disasters in history –the loss of the Aral Sea- are the legacy of modern approaches to cotton production.

The Aral Sea following the catastrophic redirection of its water sources for irrigation of cotton fields  (source:

In the last century, the world’s human population doubled but water consumption grew six-fold. A significant amount of that water went to the growing of cotton and the manufacturing of cotton products. Cotton grown for the apparel industries alone consumes 3 percent of all water used for agriculture, including food production. It takes roughly 5,300 gallons of water to produce one kilogram or 2.2 pounds of cotton—the amount of cotton required for one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Cotton production around the world requires more than 250 billion tons of water per year. The manufacture of these items of clothing requires still more water, as does the dying process.

In an area adjoining Kazakstan, another Central Asian ecosystem is being destroyed by cotton production. This area has been under Chinese control since 1949. Xinjiang Province is China’s largest administration region, and also the region producing the most cotton. A predominantly Muslim people of Turkic ethnicity, the 12 million Uyghurs living there make up 44% of the population in the Xinjiang Province, which was traditionally known as East Turkistan and is now referred to as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The Han—China’s ethnic majority population—are a minority in Xinjiang. Since the 1990s, Beijing has worked with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia to monitor Uyghurs and keep their nationalist movement in check. At the same time, China has worked to dilute the population by attracting more Han Chinese to the area.

Bordering the countries of Tibet, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia, the Uyghur Atunomous Region of Xinjiang is both large and
strategically positioned.  (source:

Han settlers brought many changes to the region beginning in the 1950s. Through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), they were provided with state subsidies and water access to produce cotton on a large scale. The longest river in China, the Tarim, was degraded and shortened by 200 miles as a result of burgeoning population and an increase in permanent farm settlements. Here again, the detrimental process of desertification rapidly created a completely depleted landscape. China’s largest lake and the terminus of the Tarim, Lake Luobupo, completely disappeared by the 1960s, as did another Tarim-fed lake, the Taitema, by the late 1980s.                                

In contrast with those of the XPCC, the Uyghur farms were small and poor. They were also not set up for high production of cotton. Nevertheless, in the 1980s and 1990s they were given cotton and grain quotas and required to adhere to them. In a small Xinjiang township on April 1990, a rebellion lasted for three days and thirty people were killed. Fearful of a separatist uprising among the Uyghur people, Beijing doubled down on its plan to make Xinjiang a major cotton-producer. Their contention was that this would close the disparity in living standards between the Han and the Uyghurs as everyone’s lives would improve.

Cotton is harvested in China’s Xinjiang region. (source:

As Chinese investments poured into the region, so did more people. And with more cotton fields came a greater strain on the water that remained. With the land degradation came abandonment of settlements in the Tarim River Basin and, ultimately, desertification. Thousands of years of oasis agriculture that relied upon annual snowmelt from the nearby mountains had made the land unusable in less than half of a century. Contrary to the state’s intentions, the Uyghurs were not better off.

Beijing has been accused by the United States and a number of European nations of widespread surveillance and repression of the Uyghur communities in Xinjiang since 2017 as the people are being forced to denounce their religion and their ethnic culture. Verified reports detail detainment for periods ranging from weeks to years in detention centers of more than a million Uyghurs for infractions as minimal as wearing a headscarf or a long beard or attending mosque services. Human rights abuses including torture, forced sterilization, and rape within those centers have also been documented. Forced labor in factories (many of them textile factories) and farms has often been cited as a condition of release from the detention center. Outside of the detention centers, the government has installed a high-tech surveillance system throughout Xinjiang that keeps track of the movements of Uyghur people through police checkpoints at roads and train stations, home visits, phone checks and passport confiscation, as well as facial recognition cameras and screening. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied the accusations of forced labor though it does admit to “vocational training programs” for people with potential for separatist or religious extremism.{3}

Workers in Xinjiang must pick impurities by hand from the cotton fibers. (source:

In 2018, North Carolina-based Badger Sportswear was one of the first to be called out as obtaining their products from a manufacturing facility inside one of the detention centers in Xinjiang. Within six months, Adidas, H&M, and The Gap were also reported as doing the same.

In late December of 2021, the U.S. Congress passed a bill banning imports from Xinjiang if the importer was unable to prove forced labor was not used in the manufacture of the goods. The United States was joined by Canada, Britain, and the European Union. Since its implementation, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has proven difficult to enforce. Today, 85% of the cotton produced in China comes from Xinjiang. This represents nearly 20% of global cotton production. Cotton from Xinjiang is made into clothing sold all over the world. It’s highly likely that Xinjiang cotton is still being sold in products through U.S. and European retailers as that cotton goes first to countries where it is manufactured into clothing. (Over 50% of the cotton that China does export goes to Asian countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The factories in these countries make garments for world-wide export.)

In our seemingly endless quest to make things better (which usually involves trying to improve on nature’s own efforts), extensive research and experimentation have gone into improving the natural properties inherent in animal and vegetable fibers. The improvements sought have been in durability, elasticity, resistance to moths and molds, freedom from wrinkling, being water-repellant or quick-drying, color fastness, ease in washing, and affordability.

Linen, cotton, wool, and silk are natural fibers. Nylon, spandex, rayon, and polyester are synthetic fibers. Because the non-natural fibers are formed with polymers derived from petroleum chemicals, they are called synthetics. They could also be called petro-fibers. Petro-fibers are used for many things, including clothing. As with plastic bags and “disposable” plastic containers, petro-fibers are not bio-degradable. They are disposed of in landfills and the ocean and they remain there unchanged.

Nylon was the first petro-fiber created by humankind. In its inaugural year in 1939, 64 million nylon stockings were purchased. Nylon was indispensable during World War II as it was the material from which parachutes were made. An advantage to nylon and the synthetics that followed was their independence from any agriculture crop (unlike cotton and flax for linen) and from animal farming (as is the case for wool or silk).


Many petro-fibers have low breathability, they “pill” badly, and they don’t keep the wearer warm. But most of all they have an extremely detrimental impact on the environment as well as to the health of the makers (and, in some cases, the wearers).

The production of petro-fibers releases the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere. Fifteen times more potent than methane and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide has a lifecycle of about 150 years as it hovers at the stratospheric level where it contributes to catalytic ozone destruction. Workers spending their days in petro-fiber production facilities are constantly exposed to the dust and fumes that irritate their eyes, throat, nose, and skin.

Production of these synthetics perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels and when we are done with them, they take hundreds of years to decompose (if not more–we don’t know yet). While they do so, they release still more toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the soil, the air, and our water. They release plastic microfibers that destroy land and marine wildlife but also get into our own food chain and, ultimately, into our lungs, our stomachs, and our blood.

Polyester fibers released from fleece, a synthetic textile, in a household washing machine. Fleece is a major source of microplastic fibers. Monique Raap/University of Victoria  (source:

Part 4–the final post in this series–considers the role of “fast fashion” in the human and climate costs of our perpetually new clothes, and what changes an individual can make to mitigate some of these costs.


1– Source for the data on the world’s top 10 cotton producers is (2020). Source for the data on the world’s top 10 cotton importers and exporters is (2017).

2—The Karakalpakstan Republic is on the southern edge of the Aral Sea. This autonomous republic has been incorporated into Uzbekistan but its people are culturally and ethnically distinct from the other people of Uzbekistan.The people of Karakalpakstan have borne much of the effect of the disaster at the Aral Sea.

3– In addition to the Uyghurs, the charges of forced labor and human rights abuses have also been applied in the case of Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim peoples by the Chinese government.

Reference Sources for Part 3:

Assoune, Alex. 2022. The Truth About Polyamide Fabric. Panaprium.

Dou, Eva. 2021. China’s Xinjiang Cotton Is Banned in the U.S. But Still Making It To tore Shelves, Report Says. The Washington Post.

Gough, Andrew. 2021. Slaves to Silk: New CNN Report Exposes an Industry of Bonded Labour. Surge.

Newell, Andrea. 2016. Quenching Cotton’s Thirst: Reducing the Use of Water in the Cotton Lifecycle. Triple Pundit.  

Sonmez, Felicia. 2021. Senate Passes Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in Major Step Toward Holding China Accountable for Repression in Xijiang. The Washington Post.

Thanhauser, Sofi. 2022. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing. New York: Pantheon Books.

Willow, Francesca. 2020. Uyghur Forced Labour: What’s Going On In China & How the Fashion Industry Is Complicit. Ethical Unicorn.

2018. Death, Injury, and Health in the Fashion Industry. Common Objective.

2022. It Takes 10,000 Litres of Water to produce One Kilogram of Cotton. The World Counts. 

One thought on “The Human and Climate Costs of Our Perpetually New Clothes- Part 3 (of 4)

  1. It’s hard to imagine the environmental damage from petro-fibers! Think of all the yoga pants people wear, the nylon and synthetic quick-dry sports clothing and bras, and the amount of fleece in everyone’s wardrobe… This is something we can all be conscious of and work to limit.

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