Organic Consumers Association

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Care What You Wear

Did Child Labor Make Your Shirt? The Story Behind Most Cotton Clothing

In a restaurant, we overheard a common exchange. "Nice shirt," said one patron. "Where's it from?"

The fashionista offered a store name. We returned to our meals.

The question lingered.

Where's it from? Not just this shirt. Any shirt. Look at your own label. Where's it from?

Chances are it went through numerous hands before ending up on your back. That's where the question takes new meaning. Where's it from? And, who's it from?

In the beginning, there was a child.

Crouched in a field in Uzbekistan, that child is most likely contributing to the primary industry of the second-largest cotton exporter in the world. Not because he wants to. Because he has to.

When cotton makes up 60 per cent of his country's export earnings, everyone is expected to pitch in. Through school closures and campaigns encouraging loyalty to the president and the country, the government sends children to the fields. In 2000, UNICEF estimated 22.6 per cent of kids aged 5 to 14 were harvesting the cotton. Some were given plastic water bottles filled with pesticide to spray on the crop.

The most fortunate child gets 3 cents for every kilogram picked - a kilogram worth $1.15 on the world market.

The Uzbek government maintains that no child labour exists in their country. Still, come September, rather than heading to class, the children diligently pick the cotton, pack it up and ship it off.

Most countries that grow cotton - places like Uzbekistan - don't have their own textile industries. So, the t-shirt continues on its journey from the hands of a child to a manufacturer in China.

There, in massive factories the size of multiple football fields, machines spin the cotton into yarn while looms weave the soft fibre into fabric. It's a practice that used to belong to skilled craftsmen - artisans who took pride in delicately creating the fabric. Today, labourers paid cheap wages produce the cloth at discounted prices before passing it on to a woman in Bangladesh.

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