The fabric of everyday life
Cotton really is part of our daily life (just check your clothes tag!) – and it’s also the livelihood of 100 million rural households in 75 countries across the globe. But price-wars and a life below the poverty line means that in many countries, cotton farmers may as well be giving the shirt off their backs.
Unravelling the issues
It’s not surprising that cotton is the most important crop in the global textile industry.
A product in such high demand can often attract a raft of issues and with cotton; it’s all about the global price tag.
The problem goes like this: producer countries that have stronger, more developed economies often subsidise their cotton industry. This creates what is known as ‘artificially low’ prices, that means it is below ‘cost’. The first to lose out are the developing countries’ local economies; the would-be export income- which could otherwise be invested in health or education – disappears. For the farmer, this means they have to hand over their crop for less than it costs to produce it. And there is nothing fair about a system that perpetuates this kind of hardship.
The solution is this. Enable farmers to fight poverty themselves through Fairtrade certification. First off, Fairtrade provides a Minimum Price paid to producers covering sustainable production costs; this then acts as a safety net when market prices drop. Beyond this, producers are eligible for Fairtrade Premium – an extra payment which the producers and their community decide how best to invest, be that for farming, health or education.
But if we’re talking cotton we must also talk about the environment. Historically, cotton farming is linked to significant environmental damage. Extensive usage of agrochemicals and the excessive use of water is not a sustainable practice. So how can we make life better for farmers and the environment alike? The answer is to combine the Fairtrade Standards with organic production.
Fairtrade works with farmers to stop or reduce the usage of agrochemicals and supports them to adapt to a changing climate. For example, Fairtrade cotton fields in West Africa and India are now mostly rain-fed, thus reducing the region’s water footprint when compared with production in other countries.
A large percentage of Fairtrade cotton is also organic certified, this encourages and empowers cotton farmers to protect the natural environment as an integral part of their farm management while ensuring long term viability of its production.
Following the cotton trail of success
Changing the way cotton is produced has made leaps and bounds in ensuring the sector can be sustainable, profitable and kind to the environment. According to the latest (2019) Fairtrade Cotton Report, here’s how things are looking for Fairtrade cotton:
People power: the story of Chetna Organic
When small-scale landholders and producers band together, they can revolutionise the way they farm and break through the cycle of extreme poverty.
Cast your mind back to India, early 2000s where life for cotton farmers was an uphill battle. Rising costs of living and uncertainty around crops were contributing to hunger and poverty. But there was opportunity for change. In 2004, Chetna Organic was founded with a goal to unite farmers and producers on an international scale to create an ethical supply chain for cotton. Their ethos is based on ecological and social sustainability through organic and Fairtrade certifications and to turn a profit at the same time.
The cooperative now produces 100 percent organic cotton, meaning extensive use of agrochemicals and their impact on the environment is significantly reduced. Chetna Organic’s story is also a great example of how the Fairtrade Premium can be used to make very specific and significant changes to a community. Chetna uses their premium to create a revolving fund for members when things get tough, offering partial payments during a price crash so they can sit on their stock but still get access to funds. The premium also partly financed the construction of warehouses and supply centres – a real game-changer as historically, many producers would keep the cotton in their homes – creating fire risk, degrading quality and making them too susceptible to price drops. Today, there are 11,139 producers involved including 73 percent producing to Fairtrade standards.
By purchasing Fairtrade organic cotton you are helping to reduce the social and environmental footprint of cotton farming, and helping to create a more certain future for the sector.