The Story Of Stuff – And Its Cost

story of stuff - Annie LeonardI’ve always thought of cotton as a natural fabric, human friendly and planet friendly. But it’s not…

Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, points out that cotton has much, much more of a cost than I ever realised:

The Story of Stuff – Updated

Cotton is the world’s dirtiest crop. It uses more dangerous insecticides than any other major commodity and is very water intensive. Cotton growing wouldn’t even be possible in areas like California’s Central Valley if big cotton plantations didn’t receive millions of dollars in federal water subsidies—even as some of the poverty-stricken farmworker towns in the Valley have no fresh water.

Dyeing and bleaching raw cotton into cloth uses large amounts of toxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals—including known carcinogens such as formaldehyde and heavy metals—poison groundwater near cotton mills, and residues remain in the finished products we put next to our skin.

Woven into this fabric of ecological damage is the planned economic subjugation of countries like Haiti, forced to grow cash crops such as cotton to pay for the crippling loans offered as “aid” instead of rice and other food crops for their families. Although slavery has been technically abolished in the United States, economic slavery  still exists in countries like Haiti, where women are forced by their economic circumstances to work in sweatshops for slave wages.

Annie Leonard writes of a visit to Haiti, and speaking to these women:

I asked them why they stayed in the teeming city, living in slums that had little electricity and no running water or sanitation, and working in such obviously unhealthy environments instead of returning to the countryside where they had grown up. They said the countryside simply couldn’t sustain them anymore. Their families had given up farming since they couldn’t compete against the rice imported from the U.S. and sold for less than half the price of the more labor-intensive, more nutritious native rice. It was all part of a plan, someone whispered, by the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development to drive Haitians off their land and into the city to sew clothes for rich Americans. The destruction of farming as a livelihood was necessary to push people to the city, so people would be desperate enough to work all day in hellish sweatshops.

The next day I called on USAID. My jaw dropped as the man from the agency openly agreed with what at first had sounded like an exaggerated conspiracy theory. He said it wasn’t efficient for Haitians to work on family farms to produce food that could be grown more cheaply elsewhere. Instead they should accept their place in the global economy—which, in his eyes, meant sewing clothes for us in the United States. But surely, I said, efficiency was not the only criterion. A farmer’s connection to the land, healthy and dignified work, a parent’s ability to spend time with his or her kids after school, a community staying intact generation after generation—didn’t all these things have value?

“Well,” he said, “if a Haitian really wants to farm, there is room for a handful of them to grow things like organic mangoes for the high-end export market.” That’s right: USAID’s plan for the people of Haiti was not self-determination, but as a market for our surplus rice and a supplier of cheap seamstresses, with an occasional organic mango for sale at our gourmet grocery stores.

By 2008 Haiti was importing 80 percent of its rice. This left the world’s poorest country at the mercy of the global rice market. Rising fuel costs, global drought, and the diversion of water to more lucrative crops—like the thirsty cotton that went into the Disney clothing—withered worldwide rice production. Global rice prices tripled over a few months, leaving thousands of Haitians unable to afford their staple food. The New York Times carried stories of Haitians forced to resort to eating mud pies, held together with bits of lard.

Read her full article here …  Annie Leonard: How to Be More than a Mindful Consumer

If you haven’t yet seen her video The Story of Stuff, watch it here:

Recommended reading:

David Korten:   When Corporations Rule the World

This is an eye-opening look at how the aid policies of the World Bank and World Trade Organisation have been commandeered by corporate greed  and deliberately destroyed the fabric of traditional societies all over the world in the name of progress.

Mara Dall (46 Posts)

Mara Dall is a writer and traveller, exploring wild, magical places of the earth, of the mind, and of the soul. Read more about her here.