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Ideas of sustainable fashion are growing

Jan 01, 2020
Ideas of sustainable fashion are growing

With rising consciousness about climate change, environment and conservation of resources, leading fashion brands are looking for a transition to organic cotton. Though organic cotton accounts for just only 1 per cent of the total cotton production globally at present, the demand is growing. C&A Foundation, which is working actively to transform the fashion industry, supports over 33,000 smallholder cotton farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat to convert to organic cotton farming.

According to Anita Chester, Head of Sustainable Raw Materials at C&A Foundation, India is slowly but surely becoming a hub for organic cotton in the world. In this interview, Anita Chester highlights on the benefits of organic cotton to farmers and the entire textile supply chain.

What is the size of organic cotton market (globally and India)?

The demand for organic cotton has been on the rise for the past few years now, and while the momentum is great – the latest figures show global production of organic cotton reached 180,971 metric tonnes for 2017/2018, only 1 per cent of all cotton globally is organic.

That number, through the efforts of partners such as Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), Cotton 2040, and the work of our field partners such as World Wildlife Fund India, Aga Khan Foundation (India), Action for Social Advancement and Solidaridad Asia, is on the rise. Through the efforts of these organisations on the ground, and their engagement with industry stakeholders in regions such as India, a revival of the organic cotton sector in this region is on its way.

What are advantages/benefits of organic cotton cultivation for farmers, spinners and the entire textile industry?

While we know inherently that organic cotton, rather organic in general is beneficial to the supply chain and consumers - organic cotton is especially beneficial because it can improve farmer’s health and business and enable communities to prosper.

Organic cotton cultivation can also drive positive impact on the environment as it eliminates the need to use synthetic chemicals, reduces the consumption of water, and improves soil health overall.

How profitable is organic cotton farming for farmers?

Organic cultivation, especially for cotton is believed to be more profitable for farmers. In Madhya Pradesh for instance – a region where our partners are active – farmers are beginning to see and realise the economic benefit of organic cotton due to a major decrease in input costs. There is also an opportunity to get more remunerative prices.

Is productivity better with organic cotton cultivation compared to BT and conventional farming? While productivity by itself has always been a measure to compare the economic value of organic and conventional cotton, it is important to recognise that organic cotton cultivation is a holistic process that considers the farmer, the environment, and the socio-economic conditions of farming communities that are growing organic. Organic as a low input agricultural system seems to work well for poorly resourced small holder farmers.

Data collected by our partners over the years shows that organic cotton cultivation can be equally productive once soil health and the farm environment have been restored through organic cultivation practices. Given the reduced need for chemically intensive inputs in organic cultivation, organic tends to have better returns in the sense of outputs vs inputs than conventional cotton.

What are the key hurdles/challenges faced by organic cotton cultivators? Is getting good cotton seeds one of the major challenges?

Access to and availability of high quality non-GMO seeds is indeed one of the biggest challenges organic cotton cultivators face. However, in addition to this – they face other challenges that stem from various systemic gaps that hold them back from full-scale adoption of organic cultivation practices. Some of the other key challenges that the cultivators face is the fact that the practice of organic farming tends to be labour intensive (to make bio-inputs), and the sector is currently not institutionalised.

The lack of transparency and an opaque, complex supply chain have also often resulted in premiums not being passed down to farmers and an inability to access strong local domestic markets for their produce.

How suitable is organic cotton farming to face the erratic climatic conditions?

Organic cotton cultivation is certainly a more suitable system to build farmer resilience to erratic climate conditions. Since cultivation practices result in an increase in organic matter content of soils, the water retention capacity of the soil is substantially increased. This makes the crop more resistant to drought like conditions. Moreover, the holistic nature of organic cotton farming also ensures that other food crops that are suited to local climatic and environmental conditions are grown as part of the system – leading to a diversification of crop mix and thereby an increase in income as well for the farmer depending on the type of crops that are grown.

How is C&A Foundation supporting the growth of organic cotton sector in India?

As a corporate foundation here to transform the fashion industry, we give our partners financial support, expertise, and networks so they can make the industry work better for every person it touches. The core of our work is driven by organisational theories of change across signature programmes – one of which is sustainable raw materials.

Under this signature programme, we work to address challenges in raw materials using systemic lens to accelerate and mainstream sustainable materials, especially cotton. Our strategy is three-pronged – leveraging direct farmer capacity building, market and sectoral development, and advocacy to drive change across the industry with our partners.

A major part of our investments have been in capacity building for organic cotton farmers, and over the years – our work with our partners has contributed to the rise of India as a major hub for organic cotton. Through our partners, we have worked to also tackle the issues that hold organic cotton back from scaling up to drive change at a systems level.

With respect to development of organic cotton farming, what are your expectations from the government – which is aiming to double farmers’ income by 2022-23?

The government is an important stakeholder in scaling up and mainstreaming sustainable raw materials such as organic cotton. With the aim of doubling farmer incomes, the government is an integral stakeholder by creating an enabling policy and market infrastructure.

In terms of a policy environment, the government could play a role in incentivising the cultivation of organic cotton through subsidies and work with certification bodies to streamline the process which is currently bureaucratic and time consuming. In addition to enabling policies and systems, it is imperative to invest in research and public institutions for the development of new or higher quality cultivars that result in seeds suitable for organic production because among the key challenges, the primary challenge is the lack of good quality non-GMO seeds.

Lastly, and to truly create a holistic enabling environment, the government should also support the institutionalisation of the input industry and invest in farmer extension for the organic cotton industry. Creating bio-inputs tends to be highly labour intensive, and with the government’s support to systematise this, there could be great potential to both double farmers’ incomes as stated in the policy goals, as well as drive scale in the organic cotton sector in India.

What is your outlook for organic cotton in India? Can India be a major player in the global sustainable fashion industry?

Today, more collaborative action is needed to address global climate challenges like the climate crisis and food insecurity. Organic cultivation can play a major role in addressing both these challenges – but for this, more stakeholders need to be engaged and industry platforms need to get them together to enable the shift to a more positive environment at scale.

Industry platforms such as Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), seeded by C&A Foundation jointly with various other brands, play an active role in enabling this collaboration with various players in the supply chain. Through our interactions with stakeholders and through dialogue from platforms such as OCA and convenings such as Cotton Trailblazers, we see that there is a lot of awareness of the need for organic in the sector, but at the same time – a lot of work still needs to be done to address challenges in such a complex and disaggregated sector.

India is slowly but surely becoming a hub for organic cotton across the world. With the rise of innovation and increased awareness of the industry, ideas of sustainable fashion are also growing. In the long-run, we will be a major player in the global sustainable fashion industry, and to ensure that we are well prepared – we aim to facilitate a lot more collaborative action and coordinated investment into the sector.