The Wages of Cotton

Non-traditional book review: I should “post-script” my self-aggrandizing comments about the synergy of academic research and activist advocacy, but I cannot resist telling this anecdote up-front.  When I arrived in Indonesia to manage a small office for the AFL-CIO in 1988, I was shown an International Labor Organization study carried out by ten doctors, directed by a woman now at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. It tracked 200 female workers earning the minimum wage of 86 (U.S.) cents per day and it monitored them for 2 years (stool and blood samples weekly).  It was found that over 80% were anemic.  I knew that the Indonesian government estimated that the minimum wage was only two-thirds of “minimum physical need” for a single adult, but this was pretty bullet-proof evidence.  When my boss came to visit Jakarta in1988, he suggested that I use the study to help the unions there advocate for a strict compliance with the minimum wage and advocacy for doubling or tripling it.  In short, our survey work showing over 40% non-compliance generated much bad publicity for foreign-run supplier factories, implicating many major Western brands; in less than 4 years, the wage had tripled.

Needless to say, there’s no more ubiquitous product that literally touches us all than cotton.   With what we know today about pesticides, organic farming and abuses in the commodity chain, there is no excuse for business as usual.  Unlike myriad intractable problems (corruption, under-resourced schools, bigotry, etc.), we have it within our power to demand and win changes on a wide scale.  To start, we need to survey the field and if just so happens that Professor Adam Sneyd has done just that in his recent book Cotton.  Any activist who is passionate about the environment or social justice in global development will find this a very rewarding examination of cotton’s political economy in an expert’s clear and concise text. Certain elements of financialization and soil/chemical discussions are challenging, but are essential to the book’s stated goals in Polity’s “Resources Series” (Coltan, Coffee, Timber, Oil, and more).

This book is written in extremely clear and accessible language which would enable a  general interest reader to gain a clear understanding of most major points and many of the more sophisticated elements, such as convoluted financial transactions and often-contradictory trade regulations. A reader is likely to be persuaded that the present system is failing to address urgent problems of both social justice (adequate compensation and protection for small producers, i.e.) and dire ecological effects such as erosion, water depletion and chemical pesticide pollution. The cottonsneydreader would benefit from some “best guesstimates” to illustrate key areas discussed, such as true sustainable practices uptake, dollar-value of “organic” and “fair trade” premiums being paid (to how many?) and latent job-creation potential – just to name three areas where some very encouraging practices are currently gaining traction. (I recently discovered statistics and some apparel-brand rating here; further, the site’s staff has promised to attempt to find numbers  really helpful to “conscious consumers.”Reliable figures are almost certainly will not be available from the industry or state-connected cotton bodies, but I still feel that it makes a great difference to be able to show,  say, “.5% or 3% of total production world-wide with an average of 10% growth since 2006” would be useful. Additionally, there is no discussion of marketing outlays by major fashion brands and the cost-breakdown of a T-shirt, comparing both organic/fair trade and the mass-produced consumer articles. The important and controversial subject of “need creation” is dealt with in relation to marketing farming equipment (p.27) in a most thorough and persuasive way – much could also be said about what Nike terms “demand creation,” for which the company spent $3.2 billion last year.

Of particular interest is the book’s contribution to the debate – muted though it is – over “public relations” credibility and the “new currency of self-regulation” (p.66), combined with the application of the concept of “opportunity cost” (p.24), this should guide policy-makers and activists weighing the efficacy of Better Cotton (pp. 32, 33 and 97) and Corporate Social Responsibility  (CSR) generally. Also valuable is the in-depth analysis of “obscured corporatization and financialization,” aided and abetted by the WTO (p.89). Likewise, dividing the fraught subject of subsidies into good (Spain and Greece) and bad (U.S. and China) is enlightening and thought-provoking (p.38 and p.57).

Less satisfying is Prof. Sneyd’s analysis of the “key weakness of certification” vis a vis sustainability. He excuses himself by averring that tracking only one company’s promise-versus-performance on this issue would, itself be a book-length study, but this is unconvincing. At several points he addresses this as an issue of paramount concern but too often backs away, offers modest praise or leaves the reader believing that some initiatives are truly working. He is correct to identify the larger issue as one of “re-framing” (p.20 and p.32) and could develop this further with some recent business school professors’ writings on the subject.

More could be said about the impact of and methodology used in breaking up cotton cooperatives (p.58) and a few words could be said about the promising sociology sub-discipline of Participatory Action Research (see survey discussion p.89). Since my bias decidedly favors “farmer self-help” as a strategy, I felt that many discussions in the book were farmers-acted-on than farmers-as-actors not a denial of agency so much as a lack of positive action for change.

I believe that the book is extremely through without extraneous material. It is very up-to-date and the discussion of transparency and “speculation on steroids” has a torn-from-the-headlines feel (p.71). Important information which might be included-as previously mentioned- is the re-framing discussion and “self-help” strategies. As I’ve suggested, an organizer is tempted to view any publication as a “campaign manifesto” and is bound to be disappointed by an academic’s seeming lack of passion. Be assured, this is a great base from which to launch strong efforts on behalf this sector that touches tens of millions around the world.