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Organic cotton: moving forward

Grandmother and former nurse Linda Sones sells organic cotton baby and children’s clothing and accessories, and natural, organic baby toiletries online at SonesUK. Her suppliers are all committed to various environmental and Fairtrade initiatives.

Twenty years ago organic cotton pioneers built their own supply chains from scratch and created a new business model based on a concept of partnership. Farmers made a commitment to supply organically certified cotton and retailers bought it at a reasonable price. Because the crop had to have organic field certification to qualify for the final label on the garment, a link between the farmer and consumer was established.

Farmers who converted to organic cotton are now seeing benefits in terms of their health, the environment and, for the first time, enjoying a closer relationship with retailers. But this relationship is now facing challenges as mainstream retailers start placing huge orders. Whilst this can bring opportunities to expand and benefit farmers, it will depend on whether big companies continue to use the ethical and equitable trading practices set up by pioneers who are mainly relatively small businesses. For example, a well known high street retailer recently had a huge marketing campaign based on their tee shirts being made from Fairtrade cotton. But this did not extend to the garment manufacturing. So, as a case in point, we see that it is very easy to put a ‘spin’ on things with clever marketing and things are not always what they seem.

Production of cotton is a crucial part of the economy of many third world countries, with millions of people dependent on it for their livelihood. Fifty years ago ‘white gold’ was seen as the great hope for developing countries. But these dreams have faltered, with cotton farmers barely able to make a living and in debt to pesticide suppliers. Chemically intensive cotton production and monoculture has contaminated soil and water resources and reduced fertility of the soil. Effects on the environment and workers health has been devastating. Not enough is known about the chronic effects of being continually exposed to pesticides, but it has been suggested that deaths as a result are vastly underestimated because very few workers have access to medical diagnosis and treatment.

Only over the last twenty years have the social, environmental and health impacts of cotton begun to be considered. This is because of the complexities of the supply chain for conventionally grown cotton which makes it difficult for consumers to be aware of the beginnings of the chain. Fibres are blended and are not traceable to their point of origin. In the case of organic cotton the fibre needs to be separate from conventional cotton fibre and cannot therefore enter the same supply chain. With conventional cotton there is such a long chain of buyers and manufacturers. Clothing retailers shop around for the cheapest fabric and the growers at the end of the chain are squeezed to the maximum so that the price of their product falls. They see the only way forward as increasing their yield with increased use of chemicals. Eventually pests develop resistance and the yield decreases. American and European subsidies push the price down even further and this way third world countries are kept poor and in debt to the Agrochemical giants who maintain a healthy profit.

Benefits of organic cotton to the environment and growers are well documented, but what is not so often recognized is the fairer supply chain. Pioneering cotton companies have also undertaken to share the daunting risks. Agriculture is subject to forces beyond our control in terms of adverse weather and climate. There is no safety net for third world cotton farmers and banks that see them as high risk charge exorbitant interest rates for loans and overdrafts. Pre-financing by arranging input advances during the growing is a central aspect of a fair trading model.

With the high street giants seeing the marketing potential of organic cotton come new challenges to be faced. Will these giants continue with the trading standards set up by the organic cotton pioneers or will they expect to continue with the practices that they have previously imposed on their suppliers, such as making them wait 90 days for payment? It is imperative that they set up new ways of working and do not rely on their size and power to impose unfair conditions. It is also important that they continue to uphold the pre-finance support, listen to what farmers say and understand and develop the principles of the organic agricultural model. It is critical to fair and ethical practice that we continue to have clarity throughout the supply chain.

Photo credit: Jonne1985