China: Leading brands collaborate to support cotton farmers

Solidaridad and VF Corporation (parent company of brands such as Timberland®, The North Face® and Lee® and Wrangler® jeans) have joined hands on a three year project to create sustainable cotton supply from smallholder farmers in the Hebei Province, one of China’s leading cotton producing areas. The project will be working according to the Better Cotton production principles, as laid out by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to help farmers to grow cotton in a way that reduces stress on the environment, and improves the livelihoods for long-term change.

In September, at the start of the harvest season, VF and Solidaridad organised a field trip to Julu County, Hebei. A delegation of seventeen of VF’s senior management from the sourcing department and country management, and representatives from the BCI China office joined the trip, to observe first-hand what Better Cotton means for the farmers involved. It was also the first time that many of VF staff had been to cotton fields and the trip offered them a good opportunity to understand cotton production, upstream of the complex apparel value chain.

Hebei is one of China’s leading cotton producing areas. Most cotton farmers in Hebei are smallholders, with an average land holding of less than 1 hectare per household. Julu County is listed as one of China’s poorest counties, and consequently the vast majority of its younger, educated population has migrated to cities to make a living, leaving only senior citizens and children behind. In addition, since cotton farming is a labour intensive practice, many of the remaining cotton farmers are switching to other crops such as maize and herbs.

Practical support for smallholders

VF and Solidaridad are determined to offer hands-on support to smallholders at Julu to increase income by reducing inputs costs, improving quality and productivity, and to protect the environment by helping farmers reduce use of pesticides, fertilizer and water. In addition to the farm implementation activities, other community development activities will be implemented, e.g. analyzing and addressing of women and children’s needs. 

To ensure long lasting impact and sustainability, besides the vertical chain approach in collaboration with the VF supply chain, Solidaridad received endorsement and technical support from the Julu government and the official extension service system. Solidaridad also has a long term plan to create a provincial platform promoting sustainable production in the cotton sector in Hebei. 

China is the world’s largest cotton producing country, and most cotton is produced by smallholders. For VF it is an important current and future sourcing country. However this is only viable, if the production costs do not rise immensely and the people in the sector have a safe and healthy working environment. VF and Solidaridad believe this is a unique partnership; and both parties pledge to use their experience, expertise, resources and network to help smallholders produce more sustainably. 

In 2012, Solidaridad helped to realize the first 26,000 metric tons of Better Cotton in China, and the new project is a first attempt to help smallholders benefit from the Better Cotton System. During 2013, 500 smallholders and 300 contracted farmers of a large farm joined the programme. Forecasts are that by 2015, the project can benefit up to 5,000 smallholders in the region. Key suppliers’ of VF (which includes spinning and ginning facilities) are also closely involved in the project and plans to get the cotton in the supply chain of Lee® jeans in the Asian market.