SLU news

Moving beyond organics: Understanding the place and space of brown cotton

Published: 10 October 2022
Mackenzie T. Schnell

We need to broaden our search beyond organics to understand other cotton options that are eco-friendly, if cotton is to retain a place as a sustainable fibre.

Written by Mackenzie T. Schnell (pictured, graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, USA), Nitha Palakshappa (Associate Head of School of the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing at Massey University, New Zealand, and Shiv Ganesh (Professor at the Moody College of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin).


Responsible production and consumption — the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 — has become an increasingly important conversation within the ‘slow fashion’ movement, especially since the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh.

Consumers have cast a spotlight on cotton textile production against the broader domain of sustainable fashion.

Some of the world’s largest fashion brands faced allegations of producing cotton through forced labour in Uyghur communities in Xinjiang, China in the spring of 2021. When consumers asked how they could identify if they were wearing clothes made with cotton from this region in China, journalists Vanessa Friedman and Elizabeth Paton said in a New York Times article accessible via this link:

"You don’t. The supply chain is so convoluted and subcontracting so common that it is often hard for brands themselves to know exactly where and how every component of their garments is made."

Such statements typify the complexity of sustainable fashion.

The start of the slow fashion movement has certainly helped raise consumer awareness about the environmental toll and human rights violations in the conventional cotton industry. Consumers continued to question the cost of clothing through the COVID-19 pandemic, as images depicting mountains of used and unsold clothing went viral — take for example, photos from the Atacama Desert in Chile accessible via this link.

Worryingly, organisations within the industry continue to struggle with the most fundamental questions:

  • Where and how is the cotton grown?
  • Who is processing the cotton and in what conditions?
  • Where do these textiles and garments go after they are sold?

Despite the complexity of these challenges, organic cotton remains positioned as a panacea for many of the ills of the fast fashion industry and the slow fashion movement. And for good reason.

It is an opportunity for farmers, who can spend less on synthetic herbicides and earn more for the crops in the market. It reduces the impact on soil and water by eliminating much of the pollution inherent in conventional cotton production.

The benefits of going organic can be tangible for both producers and consumers. But while advocating for organic cotton is important, the organic movement is unlikely to succeed in disentangling producers and consumers from the social and environmental challenges that have emerged within the industry.

In India, the world’s biggest producer of organic cotton since 2015, only 2.29 per cent of total cotton production is organic. Most farmers growing and selling cotton in India are smallholders who remain in vulnerable economic positions as a result of commodity markets.

Agricultural and production practices that are rooted in a particular place may not necessarily meet the criteria for organic certification. Yet, these practices demonstrate the diversity of sustainability and possibility of decolonising cotton. If cotton is to retain a place as a sustainable fibre, we need to broaden our search beyond organics to understand other cotton options that are eco-friendly.

India's brown cotton

Seeds are a good place to start. Only a few varieties of cotton, an incredibly diverse species, are seen in mainstream fashion. The prominence of mainstream cotton varieties grew over time as today’s global markets were created.

Indigenous cotton, which is also called desi cotton or brown cotton because of its natural colour, used to be the majority of cotton in India. But it is now grown by very few farmers.

Brown cotton is a fibre steeped in an incredibly rich, ancient history. Today, it is nearly impossible to find cloth or clothing made from this short-stapled variety.

However, a localised supply chain — from fibre to fashion — centered around brown cotton is emerging in southern India. We met with three of the organisations constructing this unique space in the conversation around sustainable cotton: Kandu, Janapada Khadi and The Registry of Sarees.

Kandu, meaning ‘brown’ in Kannada, is one of the few brands designed around indigenous cotton. The brown cotton is grown by one farmer. After harvest, the cotton is processed, spun into yarn and woven into cloth using traditional hand-powered technology.

There are many hurdles — technical, social and market-based — that Kandu is working to overcome. Yet, it has skirted some of the most pressing issues of conventional cotton cultivation and textile production.

Brown cotton, for example, is a rain-fed variety of cotton that is well-suited for south India’s environment. The farmer whom Kandu partners with, can mitigate some of their reliance on certain inputs that make the cost of cotton production so high and unviable.

Yet, Kandu is faced with the challenge of marketing brown cotton where its importance, both historically and for the future, are largely unknown. Kandu cooperates with Janapada Khadi to weave brown cotton yarn into fabric and ready-made garments.

Janapada Khadi, based in the village of Melukote, 140 kilometres south-east of Bengaluru, is a khadi institution owned and operated by a collective of artisans. Janapada Khadi is exploring “the possibility of human freedom, creativity and energy as a credible alternative to synthetic, industrial goods” through khadi — hand-spun and hand-woven fabrics.

They use a natural dyeing process and handloom technology, powered by weavers’ movement rather than electricity, to create their fabrics. Human energy is central to Janapada’s philosophy of sustainability. Sumana Koulagi, a third-generation member of the institute, says, “It is high time that we recognise human energy or physical labour as a sustainable energy source.”

In comparison to supply chains for solar and wind energy, the supply chain for physical labour “becomes very eco-friendly, and at the same time, it creates more employment. For example, if somebody purchases khadi you would be supporting at least a dozen livelihoods because so many people are involved in the whole supply chain. If you are purchasing something of a power loom, you will hardly be supporting two or three livelihoods because everything is machine-made”.

Janapada Khadi, through its processes, is working to reposition labour and livelihoods in conversations around environmental sustainability.

The Registry of Sarees (acessible via this link) is a “research and study centre with a multi-disciplinary approach that enables design, curatorial and publishing projects in the area of handspun and handwoven textiles”.

The Selvedge Collection (accessible via this link) is an exploration of ecology, science and technology in brown cotton seed cultivation. It is a product of collaborations between the Udaanta Trust, which Kandu is part of, Janapada Khadi weavers and the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad. The Registry of Sarees is creating awareness about brown cotton and giving consumers an opportunity to invest in its cultivation.

Just as switching from conventional to organic methods is a big lift, moving to brown cotton is at present very risky for cotton farmers. The market for brown cotton is in a nascent stage.

The rest of the textile supply chain needs to experiment and take on some risk for brown cotton to slowly regain its place in textiles. Those positioned along the value chain as garment workers, designers, buyers and retailers can absorb some of the burden of creating new markets for brown cotton. A holistic industry response from production to consumption is required.

But to begin shifting resources toward indigenous cotton in addition to organic cotton, consumers can lead in two key ways: Reexamining expectations of fabric texture, standardisation and constant availability while educating ourselves to consider the seeds, soil and communities behind our clothes.­