Jake Kiddell shares the cotton t-shirt, representative of fashion clothing that has some of the shortest lifetimes ever known. Cotton helped start Britain’s Industrial Revolution, with its ‘ghost hectares’ of colonial cotton plantations echoed today in environmental conditions of reduced water availability and quality where cotton is grown and processed.
Museum of the Anthropocene: Cotton-based T-shirt
Consider yourself. What are you wearing today? You may think of a style or a brand name that represents your clothes — but look deeper. What materials encompass the matter which makes up these objects of clothing? Cotton, viscose, something else? Deeper still, what do these materials represent? Where do they come from? What have they seen? What stories can they tell us about the progress of humanity into the new geological epoch we call the Anthropocene?
Historically, cotton can tell us many things about the Anthropocene. Following the Columbian encounter in 1492, the empires of Europe began expanding their influence on land and people. It was in many of these new colonies, southern and south-eastern Asia for Britain, where cotton was grown.
These cotton plantations acted as ‘ghost-hectares’ for the British Isles. Britain could never hope to produce domestic cotton for profit due to poor growing conditions and limited land space. However, by growing cotton elsewhere in the empire, land and labour could be spared at home while exploiting it overseas.
In some ways the Industrial Revolution can be said to have begun with cotton as James Arkwright’s factory, built in 1771 and the first of its kind, was made to sew cotton into cloth. This same cloth could then be crafted further into clothing or other fabric products. These historical points demonstrate how cotton can be used to visualise the Anthropocene impacts of these processes today.
Political issues arise from the production of clothing through forms of unequal exchange, on both a global and sometimes local level. Globally cotton is produced in many areas which are lacking in water, such as Egypt, and cotton being a water-intensive crop only exacerbates this problem.
The environmental hardship of reduced water availability and quality is felt where the cotton is grown and processed. However, the largest benefits are felt elsewhere on the planet where the final clothing product is sold. This is a modern process of unequal ecological exchange very similar to the British ‘ghost-hectares’ of old.
Locally, factories producing viscose for clothing, in industrialising nations such as China generate many environmental pollutants — particularly those affecting water, and to a lesser extent air. This contaminated water then affects the communities surrounding factories, leaving people with a worsened quality of life which the factory will rarely be held accountable for and sometimes outright deny. Once again, those benefitting most from the production of clothing are not the same as those feeling the greatest environmental effects.
Clothing is entwined in a modern culture of consumption. In current times, clothes are seeing some of the shortest lifetimes ever known as some articles of clothing are only worn a few times before being discarded. Continuing this culture of fast fashion is only likely to enhance other environmental issues with clothing production.
Looking at your own clothing again, is it better to be looking into the past or into the future of the Anthropocene?
The cotton-based t-shirt was contributed by Jake Kiddell. Jake is an avid geographer with wide-ranging interests often focused on cleaner, greener, more sustainable futures. “After finishing my bachelors degree I am hoping to continue with further study into sustainability and the environment through similar lenses of history, politics, and culture as used in this piece of work.”