In recent years, alongside increasing consumer awareness and commitments made by industry, the production and consumption of sustainable options like organic cotton have become more common. Despite these welcome advances, social and environmental issues still prevent cotton from being fully sustainable.

Why? What weaves us together

Cotton is used every day by almost every person on, and above, the planet; it is the natural fibre that weaves us all together. It plays a role in everything from fashion to bedding, exploring the unknown, to currency, to saving lives. Cotton is one of the world’s most versatile renewable resources, capable of generating income for producers and comfort for consumers.

  • Fashion

    From models strutting down the catwalks of London and Paris to the ordinary consumer strolling their local stores for bargains on t-shirts, jeans, uniforms, towels, and bedding, cotton is ever present and literally touches many facets of our daily lives.

    The fashion industry generates hundreds of billions of profit per year and is critical for the economic vitality of all nations. From one typical 500 pound bale of cotton, approximately 800 men's shirts, 325 boy's jeans, 850 ladie's shirts, or 350 ladie's dresses can be made.

    In developing nations, where much of the production has been outsourced, the finishing of garments is indispensable to economic growth in terms of both exports and in  giving people the opportunity to earn fair wages that will help send their children to school, pay for medical expenses, eat healthy foods, and move out of poverty.  

  • Currency

    Money is an unavoidable part of our lives. It’s how we measure how much something is worth, from necessities like clothing, food, and housing to more abstract concepts like stock and bonds, and even other currencies. And paper money can also contain up to 75% cotton.

    Billions of dollars are spent around the world in creating money, yet few people really think about where the materials from their bills and coins are sourced and processed. In 2007, the Dutch National bank, in cooperation with Solidaridad and the Max Havelaar Foundation, launched the first ever Euro banknotes made from fair trade cotton. 20% of the required amount of 10 EUR notes were made, using 31,000 kilograms of Fair Trade cotton.

  • Home Textiles

    Almost every room in a home can and frequently is decorated with cotton. Kitchen tables are draped with cotton table cloths, windows are covered with cotton curtains and drapery, and many carpets contain cotton. Bedrooms are filled with cotton—with around 60% of sheets, to pillowcases, and blankets being sourced from cotton.

    Cotton not only graces catwalks and finds its way into our wallets, but it is an indispensable item in the home because it is durable, hygienic, absorbent and available in enough styles to fit any design scheme.  

    The room of the house where cotton dominates the most is in the bathroom, where it is used for close to 100% of towels and washcloths. Cotton owns the bathroom because it is highly absorbent. Taken together, the bed and bath textile industries account for more than 20 billion USD in revenues per year, making cotton the key component in bathrooms and bedrooms across the world.

Challenges Damage to people & the environment

Cotton is a key commodity for the textile industry, and many of the costs of production are borne by workers in factories, farmers in their fields, and the environment.

  • People

    Hard Labour

    Most cotton farmers are smallholder farmers that live at the conjunction of rural areas and poverty, They are producing less than 50% of total cotton volume, and are unable to earn suitable incomes from their labour.

    Instead of softening the realities of life, picking cotton often results in hard lives for those who toil in the fields due to low yields and a lack of access to knowledge, technology, and financing. Child labour is also troublingly widespride in many of today's cotton farms.

    Overall, conditions for workers of all ages can be described as deplorable. Of all the crops grown in the world, cotton uses the most chemicals and exposes workers to toxic chemicals. For instance, adequate safety precautions are frequently not used when applying insecticides and other chemicals.

  • Environment

    Quenching cotton's thirst

    Cotton cultivation devastates the environment due to chemical use and water inefficiency. It can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton. Why? This is largely due to irrigation, which diverts water from lakes and rivers for agriculture.

    To put that in perspective, the average household in the United States consumes 575 litres of water per day. The United States has the highest water usage in the world. This means that the 20,000 litres of water used to produce a kilogram of cotton is enough to cover the needs of almost 35 households.

    In water poverty stricken countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda, where people live on 15 litres or less per day, this amount of water would cover around 1,300 households. We can find better uses for our water, and more effective methods to produce cotton for our needs.

    Cotton also uses more chemicals than any other crop, and these chemicals seep into the ground, polluting both soil and water. The use of pesticides interferes with the soil’s own ecosystem, reducing biodiversity in the soil, sapping the soil of nutrients needed to be healthy and thus produce.

Track record Increasing Cotton's Sustainability

  • 2018

    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 total pesticides used 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 increases in productivity of 155% on average, with peaks of +643% per hectare.

  • Solidaridad’s interventions in 2017 led to improvements in both sustainable cotton supply and demand. It made contact with 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.

  • 2016

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

  • 2015

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

  • 2014

    Solidaridad officially became strategic partners with H&M.

  • 2013

    The BCI programme expanded into Kenya, Senegal, and Mozambique. Solidaridad’s cotton programme reached 150,000 farmers and began a partnership with Tommy Hilfiger.

    Solidaridad won another BCI prize based on success stories by women farmers in Mail on how training in literacy, leadership, and communication changed their lives. 

  • 2012

    The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) expands to Mozambique and Solidaridad’s ProCotton programme expanded into Uganda. In total, 4 Chinese BCI projects become Better Cotton licensees. Overall, Solidaridad’s cotton programme totalled 28 projects.

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

  • 2011

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

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

  • 2010

    The first Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) projects began.

  • 2007

    The Dutch National Bank, Solidaridad, and the Max Havelaar Foundation launched the first Euro banknotes made from Fairt Tade cotton.

  • 2004

    Solidaridad launched Chetna organic in India and began MADE-BY. MADE-BY is a not for profit organisation with the mission of making sustainable fashion common practice.

  • 2001

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

  • 2000

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

Solution We bring people together

Cotton is an industry where a natural commodity is transformed into items that earn billions of dollars whilst farmers are the environment bear the majority of the costs. We believe the solution lies in working with the entire supply chain - from farmers to retailers and brands - to bring about sustainable change throughout the industry.

  • Focus on the Farm

    We have a proven track record and vested interest in supporting farmers in improving their social, economic and environmental performance. We engage these tasks together with our civil society and local partners by emphasizing sound practices.

    These sound practices include farming fundamentals such as intercropping, crop rotation, reducing pesticide and water use, and designing programmes that bring together the aspects of famers’ lives needed to be sustainable in the field as well as off. Here we formulate programmes on the links between cotton and food security, and train women farmers in literacy, leadership, and communication. 

    Our cotton programme also uses performance indicators to help mentor of local partners. Under our mentorship we help local partners become self-reliant, meaning they are independent from both financial and organizational perspectives and are able to produce sustainable cotton.

    “We have reduced input costs and were able to improve our incomes, through applying techniques learned in Solidaridad’s farmer field schools. This has greatly reduced the number of pesticides used.”

    President Benkadi female farmer association, Mali

  • Thinking Globally

    Solutions to the problems posed by cotton are multi-faceted, just like cotton’s supply chain. This is why we take a global perspective, using the belief that brands and retailers are ideally placed to drive change in an industry with a growing demand for sustainably produced cotton.

    The cotton supply chain is complex and brands are becoming aware of the origins and the production circumstances of the cotton in their products. Gone are the days when supply chain actors were only responsible for themselves and whoever they directly received services from,   says Janet Mensik, Solidaridad’s Cotton & Textiles Cotton. Currently, she explains, companies “are responsible for everything that happens in their supply chain. Maybe not  directly, but they definitely play a role in the solutions.”  

    We take this mentality and assist brands in committing to sustainability by working through platforms such as the Better Cotton Initiative, which addresses pressing issues such as water use, fair prices for farmers, and the conditions and environmental impacts of the mills and factories that process cotton into garments.

    This helps improve the sustainability of the entire cotton supply and assists companies in corporate responsibility. Everyone wins.

    “Solidaridad’s ProCotton programme enabled us to buy our own cotton ginnery, which was a vital next step in recovering cotton cultivation in the Singida region.”

    BioSustain Ltd., Tanzania

Impact Wide network

We engage with brands and retailers, while also supporting farmers in a network that spans four continents.

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  • Contact information

    Isabelle Roger

    International Programme Coordinator, Cotton

    't Goylaan 15, 3525 AA Utrecht, The Netherlands