We have all seen a hoodie, and most of us probably have at least one hanging in our wardrobes, but how much do we understand of it?

The hoodie has always served as a cultural and political icon in urban cities representing youth, defiance and subversion. In skateboarding and hip-hop culture, having a hood up was a way to mask oneself on the streets and to avoid being identified by the police. What’s equally interesting and little known about a hoodie and this allegory of anonymity is where and how it is made and the people behind the production of this clothing. 

A hoodie could be made with different types of fabric, but let’s talk about the ubiquitous cotton hoodie. The cotton hoodie is extremely popular as cotton fabric is soft, lightweight and breathable. Cotton is often marketed to arouse positive emotions in people and project a veneer of comfort and safety. This is, however, far from the truth about the cotton industry.

If you own a cotton hoodie, your hoodie may have been produced in Argentina, Azerbaijan, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, China, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mali, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Zambia, India or China[1]. According to the 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labour or Forced Labor Report issued by the US Department of Labor[2], some form of forced or child labour[3] exist in the cotton industry in each of these countries.

The cotton supply chain is long and complex involving farms, gins, yarn spinners, fabric mills and cut and sew factories.

The first stage of the production process has been found to involve children working to sow cotton seeds, water the fields and pollinate by hand. Children may be deployed into work in cotton fields because of their small bodies and it is thought that their smaller hands will cause less abrasion to the cotton plants.

There are reports that children ages 6-17 are forced to produce cotton in Benin. Many of them had been trafficked and were lured by traffickers with false promises about working terms or conditions. Most children report not receiving the full payment and some are not paid at all. Similarly, in Burkina Faso, it is estimated that as many as fifty percent boys aged 10 and above are trafficked to work in cotton farms in Tapoa or Kompienga. In Tajikistan, there is an annual cotton harvest where children are forced out of schools to work at the farms and even receive threats regarding exams and grades if they refuse to work. Some of these children pick up to 66 pounds of cotton daily. Schools that are in cahoots with farm owners would reportedly pocket some of the children’s wages. In India, the state of Andhra Pradesh has been found to have bonded child labourers working on cottonseed farms, forced to work to pay off the debt of advanced payments made to their parents[4]. These children below the age of 18 work extremely long hours in cotton fields with zero or no pay and live in poor conditions with threats of abuse. Cotton farms are also notorious for using large amounts of pesticide making up to 16 percent of global use and prolonged exposure to these chemicals have a severe impact on the health of these children[5].

Once the cotton is harvested, they will be sent to the ginning factory. This is where the cotton fibre will be separated from the seeds and dried, cleaned and rolled into bales. Again, it is mostly children working at the factory as they are cheaper or nil labour cost to the factory owners. There are many such factories in areas such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh where working conditions are hazardous and unsafe – factories are crowded and poorly ventilated and children are not provided with any safety equipment and breathe in air filled with cotton dust.

Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

The cotton bales will then get sent to the spinning mills where cotton fibre is spun into thread and later dyed and bleached. Spinning mills often compete with one another to secure a contract with the cut and sew factory and trafficked labour[6] is more often than not involved in the competition to be the cheapest. For instance, there are thousands of small unregistered and unmonitored cotton mails in South India which run Sumangali schemes. The term Sumangali means “married woman” in Tamil and the Sumangali is a scheme involving girls hired on contract for three to five years, during which she is told that she will earn a wage and after which she will be given a lump sum to pay for dowry[7]The modus operandi of this Sumangali is in fact no different from human trafficking as middle men for factory owners (i.e. the traffickers) target rural communities and deceive parents who are poor and desperate by promising to offer their daughters all the benefits of the Sumangali but delivering none of them. Most girls in the Sumangali scheme receive little or no pay due to unlawful deductions or withholding of pay by the factory owners and due to the extremely long work hours, physical and sometimes sexual abuse which occur in these factories plus high incidents of workplace injuries, most end up either being chased out for being physically weak or leave the factories penniless.

As such, by the time cotton reaches the cuts and sew factories where the fabric is turned into a garment, it might already have passed through the hands of several enslaved children. Not to mention that there are complex layers of outsourcing and intermediaries/brokers in the apparel industry so we can only guess how many children and trafficked persons are involved in the process of making a cotton hoodie.

At the cut and sew factories, we are likely to see slightly older girls and women involved in fabric cutting and clothes sewing. They often work in hazardous and unsafe conditions for long hours and are subject to withholding of pay and verbal, physical and sometimes sexual abuse. The tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013[8] was a sombre reminder of dire factory conditions and exploitative labour practices which exist in these factories.

What can you do?

With this understanding of the cotton trade, one can hold the cotton-made clothing that we already own with respect and gratitude for we never know the countless lives sacrificed in the process in order to benefit our consumption.

One can consciously avoid unethical fashion practices, to only purchase when there is a need and to purchase from brands that have strict ethical sourcing policies.

One can exercise consumer power by asking tough questions to apparel brands to lift the veil (or the hood) on provenance and supply chain labour issues with the goal of promoting a culture of accountability, transparency, adherence to human rights standards and to actively create conditions which will allow every person in this world to live a life of dignity. Brands that demonstrate this commitment should be rewarded with our custom.

Contributed by: Limei Teo

[2] Ibid.
[3] Child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity; work that exceeds a minimum number of hours; work that exceeds a minimum number of hours; work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and work that interferes with their schooling. See International Labour Organisation (2020), About Child Labour –  https://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang–en/index.htm.
[5] World Vision. Forced and Child Labour in the Cotton Industry. March 2012. http://campaign.worldvision.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Forced-and-child-labour-in-the-cotton-industry-fact-sheet.pdf.
[6] Human trafficking is defined in the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation”.
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumangali_(child_labour)
[8] The Rana Plaza housed five garment factories and its collapse led to 1,132 people killed and 2,500 people injured. There were prior warnings from workers about the structural integrity of the factories but they were unheeded by factory owners who were focused on keeping costs down in order to meet the demands of their clients, many of them which were international fashion brands. Source:  https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/geip/WCMS_614394/lang–en/index.htm