The environmental impact across the apparel industry is not only significant but has also been drawing more popular attention with the recent focuses on climate change. Tell us a bit about what CottonConnect does to help companies improve their social and environmental footprint?
Brands and retailers manage complicated supply chains, where the challenges facing cotton farmers range from climate change, to water shortages, lack of basic farming skills, access to finance and the role of women.
So we work with brands and retailers to help understand the risks and develop, manage and optimise sustainable cotton supply chains.
We’ve worked with companies including Primark, C&A and Kering to introduce sustainable farming methods and improve cotton yields and incomes for their farmers. For example, our sustainable agricultural training, the REEL Cotton Programme, has helped over 14,000 farmers reduce water usage by up to 60%, increase profit by up to 210% and increase yields up to 50%.
And how do you work with BCI and with Primark?
We are in partnership with BCI to grow Better Cotton in China, India and Pakistan and over the last year we’ve trained over 3,000 farmers China and almost 50,000 farmers in India and Pakistan, producing over 60,000 MT of BCI lint cotton in total.
We’ve also been working with Primark to train female cotton farmers in Gujarat and the 1,250 women we’ve trained achieved a 200% higher profit than conventional farmers. The programme has also encouraged more sustainable farming methods, resulting in lower fertiliser, pesticide and water usage.
The programme also supports primary education and we’ve helped around 40 children who were not going to school to get back into regular education.
These successes have led to a six-year extension of the Primark programme which will offer training to 10,000 more female farmers. The initial ‘graduate’ women farmers will also have the opportunity to learn how to become successful entrepreneurs through our Farmer Business School Programme.
What are some of the main challenges which have cropped up while working on sustainable cotton?
The cotton supply chain is complicated and cotton farmers can be disparate and disconnected from brands and retailers.
There are also issues with the market which we can’t control, such as the lack of consistency in demand for sustainable cotton fibre, the drop in cotton prices in last few years, the global decrease in area under cotton cultivation and competition for cultivation with food crops.
So we work with our partners to understand the risks and build resilience by understanding their supply chain. And to improve conditions for cotton farmers we help access to finance, provide training in more sustainable agricultural practices and develop leadership skills, entrepreneurship and farmer organisation.
Where do you see the most progress being made on sustainable cotton?
The good news is there is progress on a number of fronts which will help grow the market for sustainable cotton and improve conditions for smallholder farmers.
Awareness of sustainability is driving down the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and is helping to reduce water usage.
Increased customer demand for transparency, traceability and awareness of social issues like gender empowerment, health and child rights are improving conditions for cotton farmers.
We hope that the positive outcomes of our work will encourage more brands and retailers to work with us to improve conditions for cotton farmers and mitigate the impacts of climate change to increase cotton yields and profit.
How do you measure that and show your brand members that their money is being used well?
Of course we measure our programmes to provide quantifiable outcomes of our work, but over and above this our work creates a relationship between brands and farmers. And today’s consumers want to know more about the people who produce the cotton they buy, so this transparency is increasingly important for brand reputation.
An example of our approach to increase transparency and build brands is our work with C&A and John Lewis.
We’ve worked with C&A to link sustainable fibre into the supply chain for their market leading organic clothing range.
Working with John Lewis we’ve trained 1,500 farmers on sustainable cotton to create ‘Foundation Cotton’. This Foundation Cotton was used to produce a bath mat with a two-fold outcome; both helping John Lewis become involved with cotton producers at farm level and enabling them to run a PR campaign to outline their brand position on sustainability to customers.