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Those whimsical “Fabric of Our Lives” ads hide the ugly truth about cotton

The touch, the feel, Big Cotton.

Zooey Deschanel starred in Cotton Inc.’s 2009 “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign.
Cotton Inc.

The year is 1992. John Gotti is going to prison, Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton are feuding, Sinead O’Connor is ripping up a photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live, and everyone is just finding out that cotton is the fabric of their lives.

“The touch, the feel of cotton, the fabric of our lives,” they are told, in a singsong sentence that doesn’t make grammatical sense, in a commercial paid for by Cotton Incorporated, a trade organization tasked with selling the story of American cotton.

This famous commercial later underwent several updates, with versions of the signature jingle sung by indie movie queen Zooey Deschanel (pictured above, in 2009), by country star Miranda Lambert (also 2009),one-megahit-wonder Leona Lewis (2010), onetime Taylor Swift collaborator Colbie Caillat (also 2010), Blue Crush heroine Kate Bosworth (2011), and Heroes star Hayden Panettiere (2013).

Each star riffed slightly on the formula and added personal touches, but the message was the same: Cotton, it’s the fabric of my life, your life, our lives. “The Fabric of Our Lives” became a blog about cotton, with tips on how to wear cotton summer dresses and buy cotton underwear. The blog has an Instagram. The Instagram has tips on how to wear cotton.

“Why all this advertising for a type of fabric?” you might have, at one point, wondered. There are no commercials for silk, or polyester, or even denim that is not a specific brand of denim. What exactly are we being sold here?

These questions might sound rhetorical, but they are not. Cotton is floundering, and it has deep, ugly roots in America. It is also emblematic of the way US power and money holds developing countries underwater. Insofar as any plant needs a whimsical dreamscape ad campaign, it’s cotton.

At one time, cotton was the primary textile in the US, making up 78 percent of the retail market in 1960. But the rise of synthetic fibers in clothing manufacturing has been an obvious threat to its dominance, which the Department of Agriculture first took note of in 1966; the National Cotton Council trade organization became particularly concerned about this in 2009, noting that cotton’s share of domestic retail markets was declining (at the time, it was down to 43 percent from 44 percent the year before). By 2017, its share had dropped to 34.4 percent, so honestly, these commercials don’t even seem to be working.

But Cotton Incorporated itself deserves some further discussion regardless, given its place in a twisted network of big money. Founded in North Carolina in 1970, the company says its mission is to “increase the demand for and profitability of cotton through research and promotion,” which it does using money that comes from major cotton growers who contribute to the Cotton Board, which reports to the Department of Agriculture.

It also works with Cotton Council International, which, despite its name, is not an international organization and is actually the “trade arm” of the National Cotton Council — a Memphis-based PAC that lobbies for the passage of farm bills that benefit the cotton industry. Before Cotton Inc. brought us Zooey’s fresh-pressed babydoll dresses, it sponsored the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and paid peak ABC Evening News-era Barbara Walters to talk up her favorite tiki shirt.

All major American industries have some similar apparatus of lobbyists and marketers and rich people set up around them, but cotton’s is interesting because the American cotton industry is uniquely rotten.

Lovell Jarvis, director of the Blum Center of Developing Economies at the University of California Davis, tells me he’s never seen the “Fabric of Our Lives” commercials but listens patiently while I try to describe them, and then considers. “Is cotton a good product? I would say yes. Do I want to wear more cotton? Yes, sure. Does that mean I would support subsidies for the cotton industry? No. I especially wouldn’t if they were distorting international markets.”

It’s a good diss, so let’s walk through it. Cotton is one of the few true American abundances. We export around $7 billion of the stuff each year (more than any other country except China). And the United States has exerted serious effort to skirt international trade rules and control the global price of cotton, subsidizing American farmers so they can be guaranteed a profit even while markets fluctuate.

The goal of subsidies is supposed to be to protect farmers, who do work in a volatile industry. But it’s probably appropriate to point out that the cotton industry was built entirely off slavery, and the government has demonstrated no interest in paying the billions of dollars of reparations the descendants of cotton plantation slaves are owed.

And in practice, subsidizing American farmers means giving them the means to produce more and undercut the global market price. The governments of smaller or developing countries don’t have the money to compete.

In 2002, Brazil brought a complaint against the US to the World Trade Organization — a bold and rare move, considering the WTO is pretty much putty in the United States’ hands in the first place — arguing that our government’s habit of spending billions of dollars a year to keep cotton export prices artificially low was damaging and a violation of trade agreements.

Representatives pointed out that the US share of the global cotton industry had doubled from 1995 to 2002, alongside a dramatic plunge in pricing. Pretty clear-cut argument! The WTO agreed with Brazil, but nothing happened.

At another WTO meeting in Hong Kong in 2005, Ngarmbatina Odjimbeyee Soukate, a trade minister from Chad, addressed US trade officials with what she called “An appeal to the human conscience,” asking “simply remember that we too are human beings.”

At the time, the US was spending about $3.5 billion a year subsidizing its 25,000 cotton growers — estimated by the LA Times to be “four times the entire value of the cotton produced by more than 10 million farmers in Africa.” In other words: enough to render the labor of 10 million people completely worthless. A coalition of West African countries — including Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Benin, which relies on cotton for 70 percent of its yearly revenue from exports — asked the US to commit to getting rid of export subsidies by the end of 2010.

But by 2011, the US had still changed next to nothing about its policy, idly offered to subsidize some Brazilian farmers to shut them up, and, as the Guardian reported, had doled out another $24 billion to its own farmers since 2001.

I learned this in college, which I am bringing up not to seem educated but so that I can tell you that my agriculture classes (I went to an agricultural school! Don’t ask me why!) were split down the middle between people who loved cotton and people who hated cotton.

This may seem odd, because what does a teenager care about such an extremely boring agricultural product? But the schism was caused by the fact that, reliably, half of the students were sweet, angry hippies who were there to get even angrier at Monsanto, and half were children of big farmers. Oddly, the former cared more about free trade than the latter, which loved capitalism but mostly when it was rigged by the federal government to benefit their personal wealth.

The joke is not really on my rich former classmates, as it’s actually on most of the world, but: These subsidies don’t even benefit their families as much as they might think. The primary beneficiaries of subsidies in the US are corporate agricultural giants like Monsanto and Cargill, as well as companies like Tyson, which saves about $300 million a year on chicken thanks to government cash, and soda companies, which save about $100 million a year on their corn bills. We are all fools. (Especially the boys who took Perspectives on International Agriculture and Rural Development in the fall of 2013.)

Jarvis’s colleague Dan Sumner was one of the economists who argued on Brazil’s behalf back in 2001. Jarvis remembers the vitriol that came out of the California cotton industry after Sumner and his team won, then says they eventually had to get over it because Sumner was so plainly right. “If the US does something to directly subsidize production of cotton in the United States, it’s highly probable that the additional output will flow into exports,” Jarvis said. “If you increase US exports above what they would be without subsidies, you’re likely to reduce international price. Subsidies that distort international trade are illegal.” Plain and simple.

The 2014 farm bill was supposed to resolve the issue — 12 years after it came up — by eliminating direct subsidies and supporting farmers with a new crop insurance program that the WTO so far hasn’t had an explicit issue with. (Though Jarvis speculates it could have been shown to be illegal in future studies, given the common result of participating farmers getting out far more money than they were buying in with.)

But large farmers and the National Cotton Council didn’t like this plan and tossed up several options for reclassifying cotton, redefining “income support,” and basically redoing the system so as to have the same effect on the global industry as it did before.

This year’s farm bill, which passed in June, is beloved by the National Cotton Council and the farmers it represents because it goes along with those suggestions, contorts around WTO rules, and restores the status quo of big, ugly cotton. It’s like the past 16 years of debate didn’t even happen!

So no offense to Zooey and her tea-length pleated skirts, and definitely no offense to her banjo player, but cotton? Not actually that cute.