POLOLO also uses the “white gold”: Report from the POLOLO B2B lecture evening (“Fibre Seminar” for POLOLO retailers) on September 10th, 2019 in Berlin

Once again, we had an interesting lecture evening for retailers in our Berlin POLOLO ShowRoom in September 2019. Some participants took on extra long journeys to listen to the presentations by POLOLO Executive Director Franziska Kuntze and guest speaker Heike Hess, head of the office of the Association of the International Natural Textile Industry (IVN), on the focal points of leather, cotton, wool and hemp (all materials processed for the POLOLO shoe collection) and we would like to thank them warmly for their participation!

“Fibre Seminar” also recorded on video

Our aim was to present the special features of organic cultivation or organic leather production as well as the health benefits for the consumer. The aspects of occupational safety and social criteria for certified clothing and leather were also discussed.
As with our POLOLO retailer lecture evening on “Learning to walk”, we have summarised the lectures in writing and will now inform our readers in four individual blog posts on each fibre, starting with cotton. We have also recorded the lecture on film:
You can find it at POLOLO on YouTube: “Training: ecological cotton as a material for children’s shoes / textiles” (German):


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Cotton – the “white gold” as the “top dog” of natural fibres

Heike Hess began her presentation on natural fibres with cotton, which is also used by POLOLO for shoe production. This “white gold” is considered the “top dog” among natural fibres.
It was already cultivated in Egypt more than 9,000 years ago. In the 16th century, it was considered a luxury good from Asia, until in the 17th century, in the course of the first Industrial Revolution, linen and hemp were displaced, first in England, and cotton spread as a mass product in Europe.
It was not until 2007, incidentally, that “organic cotton” was defined by an EU organic regulation. Hess explained that the German term “Baum-Wolle” (tree wool) for cotton is rather misleading, because the fibres come from shrubs. In most languages, the term is borrowed from the Arabic word “qutn” [kutt:n], e.g. “cotton” in English.

Cultivation of cotton: India and China share the top position

Cotton is grown in almost 100 countries: India and China share the top position in production, followed at a distance by the USA. The annual output is about 23 million metric tonnes. About 2.5 per cent of global agricultural land is used for this purpose. Only about 1.2 percent is organic cotton, from “controlled organic cultivation”.
In conventional cultivation, i.e. as a monoculture, eleven percent of all pesticides and 16 percent of all insecticides are used for cotton – a threat to biodiversity. Synthetic fertilisers and herbicides also cause soil and water pollution.
In organic cotton, on the other hand, synthetic pesticides and fertilisers are deliberately avoided – alternatively, plant-based agents and humus are used; pests can be collected manually. Furthermore, it is crucial to select suitable locations in the first place and to avoid monocultures.

Aral Sea – an object lesson for unsustainable irrigation management

Hess showed the Aral Sea, which belongs to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as a cautionary example of extensive irrigation and salinisation of the soil. Once the fourth largest inland lake in the world, it is now largely silted up.
Hess explained that 10,000 to 30,000 litres of water are needed for one kilogram of cotton in conventional cultivation. Up to 60 per cent of this evaporates during surface irrigation. There was a risk of salinisation and erosion of the soil. Furthermore, the pesticides sprayed pollute drinking water sources.
In organic farming, on the other hand, about 30 per cent of the crops are rain-fed, so there is no need for additional irrigation. Drip or furrow irrigation can save about 40 per cent of water – thus 7,000 litres of water are sufficient for one kilogramme of organic cotton. The undamaged soil also stores much more water.

Use of defoliants for mechanised cotton harvesting

The mechanised harvest in conventional cultivation requires that all capsules of the bush ripen at the same time – for this purpose, emergency ripening is forced by using defoliants (nerve agents – compare “Agent Orange” in the Vietnam War), Hess explained.
The problem is that the opened capsules absorb the poison. In the medium term, the soil is devastated, which also threatens biodiversity and groundwater.
In organic farming, defoliants are generally prohibited and harvesting is done manually over a longer period of time.

Breeding genetically modified cotton with alleged advantages

The breeding of genetically modified cotton for conventional cultivation initially promises a number of advantages: Resistance to poisons, reduction in the use of chemicals, increased yields, but also influence on fibre quality or lower water consumption.
Nevertheless, according to Hess, the use of genetic engineering is prohibited in organic farming: Genetically modified plants are infertile and do not provide seed for the following year, which means higher costs and drives farmers into a debt trap.
In addition, insects could develop their own resistances over time, and the application of genetically modified plants was an irreversible experiment. There is no way to keep a clear line of demarcation in field cultivation, and GM plants could contaminate other land.

Cotton cultivation: lack of awareness of the problem of chemical use

The social consequences of conventional cultivation, especially in relation to poisoning by pesticides and dyes, should not be ignored: Due to the prevailing poverty in many of the growing countries, there is no money for protective clothing.
The poor or insufficient labelling of the products and the lack of awareness resulting from poor education and training lead to millions of poisonings, thousands of which are fatal.
Protective clothing is usually provided for the organic cultivation of cotton. Workers received education, training and advice – as well as information in the local language. Farmers support each other. Bonus programmes improve the income situation.

The downside of using cotton: child and slave labour as extreme cases

The cultivation and processing of conventional cotton has also led to excesses such as child labour and sometimes downright slave conditions. In sweatshops, for example, children had to work ten to 14 hours without a break.
Intra-family work was also often accompanied by dropping out of school. According to estimates, about 175,000 children were working in the Indian cotton industry.
On the other hand, projects and initiatives are trying to avoid child labour in the cultivation of organic cotton from the very beginning. Instead, school projects are dedicated to them. They are also committed to paying fair wages.

Cotton is characterised above all by its skin-friendliness

The popularity of cotton is due, for example, to its skin-friendliness – according to Hess, it does not scratch and is nicely breathable. It also has good absorbency.
Due to its resistance to heat and alkaline solutions, it is easy to wash and durable.
Cotton does not tend to mat and is moth-proof. Its elasticity is higher than that of bast fibres and it is more tear-resistant than wool or silk.

Cotton – ideal for the summer months

Cotton is refreshing and has a cooling effect (it hardly keeps you warm) and therefore provides fabrics for the warm season.
At POLOLO, we like to use cotton as an alternative to leather because this material is particularly elastic and light on the foot – it is ideal for children’s feet, especially in the summer months.

Photo: The new POLOLO "Uni" slippers made of cotton for a fresh feeling