This Juneteenth, What Does It Mean That The Cotton We Use Comes From Texas?By Geana Sieburger |
Cotton thrives in the US today. The US is the 3rd largest producer of conventional cotton in the world (India and China are 1 and 2). In the US this is partly due to technologies such as irrigation systems, high tech tractors, and fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used by huge monoculture farming. Cotton also thrives in this country due to the labor of Black enslaved people and Black sharecroppers who labored in fields for hundreds of years.
The Emancipation Proclamation was ignored by Texas for 2.5 years. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived with news that the Civil War was over, that enslaved people became free in the state of Texas.
I have acknowledged before that the fiber used in some GDS products, in it’s history is connected to slavery. Now on Juneteenth, it’s worth me speaking to it in more depth, especially since the fiber for one of our products is actually grown in Texas. Here is some basic history in case you don’t already know it:
Enslaved people were freed through President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became official on January 1, 1863. This executive order was ignored by the state of Texas for 2.5 years. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived with news that the Civil War was over, that enslaved people became free in the state of Texas. Juneteenth is the celebration of this day.
I learned about this bit of US history a couple of years ago when I was giving a presentation about Ebb Filters and said that our cotton is grown on organic cotton farms in Texas. During the Q&A a Black woman asked me a question about how I was ensuring proper labor practices were in place at the farms. She went on to say that I lost her at “Texas cotton.” I felt challenged and dismissed, but the truth is that she deserved an explanation. I told her that part of the reason I had chosen to work with these organic farms specifically, was because these farms are much safer for farm workers and their families, and that today’s farming requires little to no manual labor. I told her that I visited the farms myself, did the industry research, that I am an immigrant myself, and that labor is a personal, top concern for me.
I’m grateful for her, her anger, and her frustration. We communicated through the initial emotions into a space that allowed us to see each other. See each other, not as oblivious white woman and angry black woman, but to see each other as business owners and creatives trying to build new realities.
Fiber, like most raw materials and food ingredients, has complex histories that are political and economic typically involving the labor of those seen as having less power for the benefit of the wealthiest few. Cotton is an absurd example of this. How do I reconcile the good of my products with these brutal histories (because the reality is that these are not histories, right? They are currently occurring in many places around the world right now including the US prison system)? Personally, I feel the reconciliation comes from getting educated on the history, acknowledging the history publicly, absolutely not romanticizing the fiber, and–probably most importantly–by making damn sure I am not perpetuating the history in any way.
How exactly are we not perpetuating the history? First, let me be clear because this is not jargon… “The history” is the exploitation of people by way of labor and a devaluing of human life for greater profits.
Though the fiber we use is historically tied to slavery, the organic farms we work with have come a long way. Large farms can be tended by just a few people. Seeds are planted and the cotton is picked with the use of tractors with technologies like GPS systems. Machines are even used for most weeding. A few farms hire migrant workers to help weed the fields–the same workers who keep the US agricultural food system going. However, most of the organic farms we work with cannot afford this labor so they settle for smaller yields. The system isn’t perfect, but no carcinogenic chemicals are used contributing to healthier farming communities, workers are there by choice, and people are paid for their labor–enough to sustain themselves and to help their families in their home countries. [I want to acknowledge that immigrants face many challenges in this country–living in fear of deportation, detention centers, and the separation of families to name a few major concerns. I will expand on my values on agricultural migrant labor in a future Journal entry.]
Machines are even used for most weeding. A few farms hire migrant workers to help weed the fields–the same workers who keep the US agricultural food system going. However, most of the organic farms we work with cannot afford this labor.
The benefits of this organic cotton don’t stop at the labor aspects. Conventional cotton is a pesticide-intensive crop. Although it is only grown on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide. These pesticides are washed out of soils, and pollute rivers and groundwater (data taken from organiccotton.org). These risks are even greater at small farms in developing countries where farmers fall ill or die due to a lack of adequate equipment and education on how to handle pesticides properly. Other resources on the environmental and social impact of conventional cotton and the benefits of organic cotton: The National Wildlife Federation, Organic Trade Association. The whole point of “sustainability” in my opinion is to stop the degradation of our planet in order to keep it habitable to humans, all humans. It is all about human health, well being, and the continuation on a planet that sustains us all.
My job now–and I hope you see it as your job too–is to not perpetuate these histories. We can begin by recognizing our own implicit biases, challenging our internalized racism, and we can NOT INVEST in racism, economic instability, and labor exploitation as is still being maintained deliberately to perpetuate a free workforce. Put simply, if a company does not tell you how their materials are made or grown, they probably don’t know. If they don’t know, invest in a company that has put in the work. Better businesses are out there and when we support them, we create the demand for non-oppressive systems of work and existence. This moment is about racial equality, but there will never be racial equality without the abolishment of the corrupt capitalist system that continues to force people around the world into free labor (please watch 13th to learn more about how a new form of slavery continues in the US).
This Juneteenth, I’ll be offline celebrating Black freedom and dreaming of the day our prison system is abolished. I will also be making a toast to the young immigrants who will continue to be protected through DACA thanks to this week’s supreme court ruling. There is so much to be grateful for and still so much left to fight for.