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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Tracking the true cost of cotton
Women picking cotton in Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is almost totally reliant on its cotton crop
Cotton T-shirts - the product of a number of different global industries, with production in almost every country in the world - are one of the best products for tracking globalisation.

BBC World Service's The Cost Of... programme tracked a kilo of cotton from its origins in West Africa to the department stores of New York.

Cotton is the "white gold" for families in the fields of Burkina Faso.

A typical cotton farm is a freehold, worked on by a family who cultivate the six or eight hectares of land.

"Cotton is very special as probably the only commodity where you have producers from developing countries with a plough and a pair of oxen, competing with producers from developed countries with a cotton picker which costs $300,000," says Gerard Estur, a freelance international cotton consultant.

"These two are competing in the same world market."

Vicious cycle

One kilo of Burkina Faso-produced raw cotton is worth $0.32 (0.16).

For many of the cotton producers - such as Soulimane Sawago, leader of one village collective - the cash they get from selling the cotton is the only money they receive in the whole year.

Women carrying cotton bales in Burkina Faso
Many struggle to make the money from cotton last for the rest of the year
"That's money that they need - without that they have no alternative cash crop," Mr Estur says.

"The only other choice is to go to town (to seek employment) or to go to developed countries."

But increased competition means cotton prices globally are declining, while the cost of inputs is rising.

"It's a vicious cycle - they get less inputs, so their yields are lower, and at the same time, in other countries, yields are increasing," Mr Estur says.

"So there is a productivity gap."

From the collective, the cotton is transported to the ginning factory to make lint - a process which takes the cost per kilo to $0.76.

Coulibaly Issa is one of the workers paid to squeeze the cotton bales, for which he is paid $100 every two weeks.

"It's not sufficient at all," he simply says.

And ginning companies are feeling frustrated, says Mr Estur, as they feel that developed countries are "dragging their feet". The companies have not made money for the last three seasons, and prices are well below the costs of production.

"They have had a lot of goodwill, a lot of promises of money, but actually they are seeing their companies almost bankrupt," he adds.

Floating workers

The cotton is now transported for export to the Togo port of Lome, where it is sold to merchants at $1.20 per kilo. Over half of it is sold to China: loaded onto cargo ships for ports such as Shanghai, where it is sold to local spinning factories for $1.32 per kilo.

"The market has become more and more competitive," says Chan Wai, the manager of one such factory.

"Saving money on imports is extremely important. It's the foreign companies that make most of the profit.

Factory worker in China
Their perception is that life in this factory is actually better than life in whatever agricultural work they were doing before
Pietra Rivoli, Georgetown University

His factory finds its technical staff in Shanghai, but most of the workers on the line come from poorer areas, often in China's vast rural hinterland.

"We offer them dormitories to live in, and we have a good working environment. The more you work, the more you earn."

But Bama Athreya, director of the NGO International Labour Rights Fund, is critical of the conditions in both the spinning factories and the garment manufacturers, of which there are thousands in Shanghai - staffed by some of the more than 100 million "floating workers" who have migrated from inland.

"They're bound to their factories, because they're not allowed to live - they don't have residents permits for the areas," she says.

"They're not allowed to live in the areas where the good jobs are unless they have a job - so they're bound to their factories for permission to live in the area, which makes it very difficult for them to quit, or to look for another job if conditions are bad."


But Pietra Rivoli, professor at Georgetown University business school, said that while in comparison to the West conditions are bad, "for most of the young women working in these factories that's not their perception.

"Their perception is that life in this factory is actually better than life in whatever agricultural work they were doing before."

Cotton-picking machine in Texas
The US cotton industry itself is highly industrialised

The garments themselves - made for many of the West's most famous brands, often in the same massive factory - are now taken to port and loaded for export to the US.

The average price of a T-shirt imported into the US is $1.51, but a downtown department store in Manhattan will sell two for $20; cotton that started in Africa costing $0.76 a kilo is now worth $25 a kilo.

But Ms Athreya urges bargain-hunting consumers to think about the "true cost" of their purchase.

"We're all consumers and we need to buy clothes," she says.

"But I would just ask that people think a little bit about some of the budget clothing that is just so incredibly cheap... it's just not sustainable.

"The way it's produced is going to cost in human lives, in misery, in environmental degradation. And some way down the line, we're all going to pay those costs."

The Cost Of... is broadcast on BBC World Service at 1905 GMT on 02 May 2007.

African growth prospects improve
16 May 06 |  Business
US Congress scraps cotton subsidy
02 Feb 06 |  Americas
Fields of conflict over US cotton
13 Dec 05 |  Business

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