Risks of cotton processing

Environmental risks

All major processing stages along the cotton value chain such as dyeing, bleaching and finishing use large amounts of chemicals of various toxicity and hazardousness.

Water treatment of dyeing mill (India 2003)
Water treatment of dyeing mill (India 2003)

Most of these chemicals, such as heavy metals, formaldehyde, azo dyes, benzidine or chlorine bleach, cause environmental pollution by the mills’ waste water and many can be found as residues in the finished product. Some of them affect consumers’ health and are suspected of causing allergies, eczema or cancer (PAN UK, 2006).

Over the past two decades, many improvements have been made: chemicals are increasingly recycled or replaced by safer alternatives, and waste water is treated so as to reduce pollution. However, these improvements mainly concern processing mills in rich countries, and sub-standard environmental practices are common in developing countries, where most clothes are made. In Northern countries, many hazardous chemicals have been restricted or banned. Recently, the European Union prohibited the use of azo dyes and restricted the use of formaldehyde.

Different textile standards define the production of cotton, its trade and strict limits concerning the use of harmful chemicals in the processing of cotton. Important for the production of organic cotton textiles is the “Global Organic Textile Standard” (GOTS) which was developed by the “International Working Group on a Global Organic Textile Standard”. The standard sets criteria for all stages of production and processing along the entire textile value chain.


Energy use in cotton processing is high due to two main factors. Firstly, there are many different, highly mechanised processing stages that mainly depend on finite energy sources. Secondly, due to the increasing globalisation of the cotton value chain, the processing mills of different stages are located in far-flung regions of the world. For this reason, transport distances from the place where the cotton is harvested along the various processing steps to the final cotton product are normally huge.


Socio-economic risks

There has recently been a strong trend among retailers to shift their processing mills to low-wage countries in order to increase their competitiveness. However, many textile factories in these countries do not comply with national and international minimum regulations regarding labour rights.

Common problems for workers in textile processing factories include:

Low wages: Workers are paid wages below the minimum required to guarantee decent living conditions for them and their families.
Long working hours: Many employees have to work more than 48 hours a week, which is the maximum number of working hours according to Convention 1 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)

Risks at work: Workers often face health risks due to a lack of safety precautions and appropriate equipment. The workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals used for cotton dyeing or finishing, to dust and to equipment without safety mechanisms.

Employee participation: Freedom of assembly and the ability to participate in trades unions, which allow employees to express their view in a company, are often restricted or banned.

Child labour: It is still common to find children employed not only in cotton processing mills but also in large-scale cotton production. An alarming example is Uzbekistan  where every year the government closes schools down and sends children to pick cotton in the pesticide-contaminated fields.

Discrimination: There is frequent discrimination against women, elderly or disabled people in factories. The lack of binding labour agreements adds to the problem.


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