Cotton & Textiles

Despite the advances made in recent years towards sustainable production and consumption in the garment industry, there are still persistent social and environmental challenges that prevent the cotton and textiles sectors from becoming truly sustainable. While cotton is produced on all continents, many of the world’s garments and textiles are produced in developing countries in Asia, with China, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh being the most notable. The increasing worldwide demand for garments over the past two decades has been leading brands to search for new sourcing destinations, like Ethiopia and Myanmar.
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46,649

farmers organized in a producer group or cooperative

20

factories supported to adopt good practices

140

small-medium enterprises supported with skills, funds, and advice

Challenges

Social, economic and environmental issues

Cotton is grown in around 80 countries, and more than 100 million households around the world are directly engaged in its cultivation. The majority of these people are smallholder farmers who grow the crop on plots smaller than 2 hectares. Cotton is a key raw material for the textile industry and represents about 30% of all fibre used in the sector.

Conventional cotton production often comes with negative environmental impacts associated with the misuse of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Social challenges include poor working conditions, with concerns about the incidences of child labour and forced labour in some major cotton-producing countries.

Global trade structures are generally unfavourable for cotton farmers whose incomes come further under the threat of global market volatility. In addition, the garment factories and workers are then caught between volatile raw materials prices and stagnant retail cost prices for their work.

The environmental impact of the dyeing and finishing in the production of garments and textiles is huge. Inefficient and unsustainable practices mean that water, energy and chemicals are used irresponsibly and cause immense pollution and health risks, affecting the workers, environment and communities.

The textiles industry is also known for inadequate working conditions with excessive overtime, lack of fire and building safety, bonded and forced labour, restriction of freedom of association, and low wages, compounding already widespread poverty.

Shockingly, three quarters of sustainable cotton is still sold as conventional cotton. Farmer groups end up selling the majority of their more sustainable produce as conventional cotton due to lack of demand. If the failing brands took their responsibilities seriously, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Isabelle Roger, Global Cotton Programme Manager, Solidaridad Network

Solutions

Engaging all stakeholders in the supply chain

Solidaridad trains and supports farmers to grow cotton using less pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and water, and with respect for decent work. We also partner with others in the sector to create good infrastructure, and work on creating an enabling environment and market based approaches to make it possible for farmers to produce and sell cotton sustainably.

In the textiles sector, finding truly scalable solutions to social and environmental challenges can help improve the wages and working conditions of millions of people and help mitigate the negative impact on the environment. It can also ensure that long-standing issues are not simply exported to the new wave of emerging production countries. Moreover, sustainable practices can also be attractive from a business perspective, as resource efficiency, cost savings and a happy and well respected workforce often go hand in hand. We believe that mainstreaming sustainability into key product design, development and purchasing practices is a critical step forward in promoting sustainable practices in the global apparel and cotton sector.

We train farmers on good agricultural and industry practices and water stewardship, with the aim to improve their production while decreasing the impact on the environment. We work with wet processing facilities on better water, energy and chemical management.

We promote decent work practices, fair wages, social dialogue and the recognition of the key role played by women in cotton production in the context of smallholder family farming, and in tiers 1 and 2 of the production of garments.

We test new innovations, technologies and solutions with brands and local partners that accelerate sustainable production solutions for local factories through development of pilot projects. For example, this can be related to promoting circular business models, such as reducing waste from factories (i.e. chemical residues) through promoting new recycling options.

We work with farmer groups and cooperatives to help them prepare for certification to achieve a sustainability standard (organic, Better Cotton, Cotton Made in Africa), so as to meet market demand. And we are active in the Social and Labor Convergence Program for the reduction of audit fatigue and work towards real improvement of working conditions.

We aim to connect the farmers who supply sustainable cotton with market demand, and work on growing this demand by engaging with retailers and brands and their suppliers. We have partnered with initiatives like Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), and QuizRR.

Effective multi-stakeholder dialogue is key to achieving the transition to a sustainable economy. Through facilitating such a dialogue and encouraging stakeholders to share their experiences, Solidaridad contributes to creating a common understanding of the environmental and social issues in the supply chain.

We support brands in their due diligence obligation by offering our knowledge, expertise and network for their risk assessment process and policy development. Our solutions can be implemented in the next step of the due diligence cycle, where brands need to work on how they prevent, mitigate and remediate the risks in their supply chain.

Government and sector institutions have a role in making sustainability the norm at regional, country, landscape, or sector level. This is important in the transition to sustainable societies, where in due course, a ‘level playing field’ regulatory framework is to be created for the stakeholders that have already internalized sustainable practices, and for those that have not. Therefore, we work on (local) capacity building of stakeholders, e.g. NGOs, governments and consultants. We engage with government agencies to ensure that the initiated processes are both embedded in existing business conducts as well as scaled up to the entire industry.

With the organic cotton initiative in our state, practices such as making organic compost are emerging again and have proven to be very helpful as they are chemical-free and do not require any extra expenditure on inputs.

Roopraj Wamanro Milmile, cotton farmer, Yavatmal, India

Achievements

Safety first

In Ethiopia, 832 small-scale cotton farmers were mobilized under Dansha Union and supported to produce more than 600 tonne seed cotton (400ha of cotton), an increase of 375 percent compared to the previous season. Additionally, there was an overall decrease in work-related injuries among the 20 beneficiary factories reported, with 10 factories reporting zero injuries, while 10 factories reported 50 percent decrease in injuries and incidents.

Increasing profits

Cotton producers in Brazil increased their profits by 18% despite poor rainfall patterns and lower farm gate values for cotton. Strengthening of local cooperative Coopercat led to an increase of about 10% in the number of smallholder producers supported through technical assistance, collective purchasing of inputs and collective sales of cotton lint. The processing volume of 630 tonnes of cotton lint was the same as in 2018.

Cotton and water

We established two organic cotton and water programmes in India’s Maharashtra state, aiming to reach 30,000 farmers. Cotton production accounts for 54% of pesticide use in Indian agriculture, causing immense ecological and human hazards. In Brazil, we continued to support smallholder cotton production in semi-arid conditions. Six of seven pilot farmers who switched to irrigated production recorded increased productivity of 155% on average, with peaks of +643% per hectare.

Stimulating demand

Solidaridad’s interventions led to improvements in both the supply of and demand for sustainable cotton. It contacted farmers, started pilots to test new ideas and identify opportunities, and increasingly involved brands and retailers.

In field projects in Brazil, South Africa and India, Solidaridad supported the adoption of good agricultural practices and helped farmers address issues ranging from water efficiency to gender inclusion. 

In Ethiopia, Solidaridad made the business case for producing sustainable and profitable cotton in a pilot project while ensuring market uptake by local textile factories. 

Solidaridad in China and North America concluded a three-year project that focussed on empowering women cotton farmers by promoting good agricultural practices, leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

From field to fashion

Solidaridad contributed to a sustainable cotton sector from field to fashion. By supporting Indian farmers in adopting good agricultural practices, exploring innovations with supply chain partners in Mozambique and monitoring company performance via the Cotton Ranking, Solidaridad worked on enhancing both the supply of and demand for sustainable cotton. The growing interest in cotton sustainability, reflected in national policies and corporate commitments, was an encouraging incentive to ramp up sustainability efforts in 2017.

Consolidation and expansion

In a challenging global context, Solidaridad’s cotton programme was consolidated in nine key production countries (China, India, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Mozambique, Senegal, Mali and Ghana), while expanding to Ethiopia and South Africa. These last two countries offered new perspectives with the opportunity to connect to the growing textiles industry in Ethiopia, and domestic brands and retailers in South Africa.

An H&M partner

Solidaridad became one of H&M’s official strategic partners.

New partnerships

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) programme expanded to Kenya, Senegal, and Mozambique, while Solidaridad’s ProCotton programme reached 150,000 farmers. Solidaridad began a partnership with Tommy Hilfiger and won another BCI prize, this time for changing woman farmers’ lives in Mali through training in literacy, leadership and communication.

Growing impact

The BCI expanded to Mozambique and Solidaridad’s ProCotton programme expanded to Uganda and now totalled 28 projects. Four Chinese BCI projects became Better Cotton licensees.

Solidaridad’s Cotton Solution Network team for India won the ‘Proud to be an implementing partner’ award at the BCI’s General Assembly for the clarity, impact and originality of two best practice stories.

Learning and improving

The BCI launched in China, where it was the first initiative of its kind. Solidaridad’s ProCotton programme expanded to Tanzania and Zambia.

The Rabobank Foundation, co-funder of Solidaridad’s Cotton Solutions Network, visited India to learn about the challenges facing implementation of the Better Cotton System and Solidaridad’s approach to solving them.

BCI begins

The first Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) projects began.

Fair Trade banknotes

The Dutch National Bank, Solidaridad and the Max Havelaar Foundation launched the first euro banknotes made from Fair Trade cotton.

Normalizing sustainable fashion

Solidaridad launched Chetna organic in India and began MADE-BY, a non-profit organization with the mission of making sustainable fashion common practice.

Collaboration takes off

Oro Blanco, a collaboration between Solidaridad and farmers in Peru, started growing organic cotton and other crops. 

Sustainable clothing line

Solidaridad founded the sustainable clothing brand Kuyichi to order to introduce organic cotton to the clothing industry.

Next to social dilemmas, the use of water, energy and chemicals in the textile supply chain entails big risks for workers and the environment. Often companies lack knowledge due to the technical aspects of this subject.

Tamar Hoek, Senior Policy Advisor, Solidaridad Network, on the Solidaridad Wet Processing Guidebook

Where we work

Featured Programmes

Better Mill initiative

The Better Mill Initiative (BMI), launched in 2013 in China and in 2015 in Ethiopia, was initially a collaboration between Solidaridad and H&M. Other brands have since become involved in our effort, including C&A, Primark, New Look, Bestseller and Tommy Hilfiger. The overall objective of the programme is to improve the sustainability performance of textile wet processing in the fashion supply chain. 

Through a combination of training workshops, on-site technical support and continuous learning for participating mills, the programme focuses on a holistic approach towards sustainability improvement with regard to water, energy, chemicals, working conditions, health and safety.

Bottom Up!

In this project, we strive to promote a sustainable cotton and garment value chain from Ethiopian cotton to European consumers, aiming to work with actors along the whole supply chain to ensure responsible production practices. 

The project focuses on: 1) training and support for Ethiopian small and large cotton farms, textile and garment manufacturers to adopt responsible production practices, improve working conditions, and reduce labour rights abuses. This will enable them to seize market opportunities; 2) facilitating wider market uptake by engaging international buyers that are interested in buying sustainably produced cotton and garments from Ethiopia; and 3) engaging with European consumers to improve the knowledge and awareness on sustainability issues in the cotton and garment value chain.

Water efficiency in sustainable cotton-based production systems

In cooperation with the local government, knowledge institutes, growers, financial institutions and the private sector in Maharashtra, India, Solidaridad seeks to achieve substantial increase in water availability, efficiency, and reduced water stress for 20.000 cotton farmers. 

The project focuses on: 1) the adoption of water-efficient production methods by providing farmers with training to reduce production costs, increase yields, and improve the quality of production; 2) capacity building of farmer producer organizations; 3) improvements in infrastructure, technology and landscape; and 4) generating market demand for the cotton volumes produced by project farmers by facilitating access to ginners and creating visibility for sustainable cotton from the region.

Establishing an organic cotton hotspot

To address the sustainability issues in cotton farming in the region of Maharashtra, India (mainly over-use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and related high cost of production and water shortage), the project enables farmers to shift to organic farming practices. Besides the environment the project also strives to improve the livelihoods of smallholder cotton farmers and their families. 

In this project, 15,000 smallholder farmers have adopted organic cotton farming practices. Some results also include: 10% increase in net farm income; 10% increase in yield; market linkages established through Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) and Farm Support Centres; 5 FPOs profitable including 3 dedicated to organic cotton; and active engagement with state government authorities to promote the expansion of organic cotton production in the state. This project is made possible with the financial support of the C&A Foundation.

Improving Wage Management Systems China (WMS)

In 2018 Solidaridad and QuizRR developed a proposal, funded by ASN Bank, to implement a learning pilot on Wage Management Systems in China. The aim of the initiative is to empower workers and management of factories and to bring social business practices to scale. The initiative started in April 2019 and targets a small group of factories in China selected in collaboration with international fashion brands, including H&M, ESPRIT and KappAhl. 

The pilot offers online support by QuizRR to implement their digital training tools on workers engagement and wage management as a first step in educating workers and management, creating awareness and measuring performance. At the same time, face-to-face training and guidance are provided by Solidaridad in a period of one year to ensure that factories actually implement improved wage management systems and other improvements needed to address main labour challenges on the workfloor. This programme was concluded in March 2021 and we are currently looking for opportunities to scale up.

Join us in making cotton and textiles truly sustainable