Cotton is so commonplace it is nearly invisible. From clothing and bed linen, to surgical dressings and even banknotes, it forms an inextricable part of our lives. To feed our hunger for the fibre, cotton is grown in over 80 countries, providing an income to hundreds of millions of farmers around the world. Most producers are smallholder farmers with plots of land of less than 2 hectares in developing countries. Solidaridad has been working since 2000 to make it more sustainable, because so many people depend on cotton to make a living.
Clothing and home textiles
Cotton is the most common natural fibre in the textile industry. It represents about 30% of all textile fibre produced in the world. The global fashion industry is valued at ÚSD 3,000 billion, or about 2% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.
Cotton is ubiquitous in our homes: from bed linen and mattresses to bath towels, curtains, carpets, etc., the global home textiles market is estimated to be worth around USD 95 billion.
Short fibres and ‘waste’ from the textile industry are used to make wound dressings and surgical cotton, cosmetics, technical textiles, earbuds, wadding, etc.. Cotton can even mean money, not just for farmers who produce it, but for all of us. Many banknotes around the world (including euros, US dollars and Russian rubles) are made of it.
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.
More than fibre
The cotton plant provides us with more than its fibres. Cotton seeds can be crushed to make edible oil or animal feed. The stalks are used as firewood and can even serve as an alternative building material.
Most cotton farmers are poor smallholder farmers in developing countries. They face high production costs and low yields because they lack access to knowledge, technology and financing, making cotton cultivation a marginally profitable activity. Child and forced labour are still a reality in some countries. Field workers’ health and safety are often at risk because they apply pesticides without adequate protection.
Overuse of Chemicals and Water
In many countries, cotton is grown with rain water only. However, about half of the land used to cultivate it and 70% of the crop’s annual volume rely on irrigation. Water use can be significant if irrigation systems are inefficient, exacerbating local water stress.
Cotton is a difficult plant to grow: it is extremely sensitive to pest attacks which can destroy an entire harvest. Cotton is grown on about 2.8% of global arable land, but accounts for over 6% of all crop protection chemicals sold annually (by value). In some countries, highly hazardous pesticides are still applied by farmers without adequate protection. This has adverse consequences on the health of farmers, the profitability of cotton farming and the ecosystems in which they are used.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Solidaridad became one of H&M’s official strategic partners.
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.
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.
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.
The first Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) projects began.
The Dutch National Bank, Solidaridad and the Max Havelaar Foundation launched the first euro banknotes made from Fair Trade cotton.
Solidaridad launched Chetna organic in India and began MADE-BY, a non-profit organization with the mission of making sustainable fashion common practice.
Solidaridad founded the sustainable clothing brand Kuyichi to order to introduce organic cotton to the clothing industry.
Oro Blanco, a collaboration between Solidaridad and farmers in Peru, started growing organic cotton and other crops.
Putting farmers at the centre
Our projects on the ground aim to be holistic and focussed on farming communities. We have a proven track record in supporting farmers in improving their social, economic and environmental performance. We do this by engaging them in projects that enable them to learn and apply sound farming practices such as intercropping, crop rotation, and reducing pesticide and water use. We establish market linkages to processors committed to sustainability.
“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.”
Bintou Traore President Benkadi female farmer association, Mali
Connecting to the Global Sector
The cotton sector’s interlinked challenges and the globalisation of its value chain call for a multi-level approach. That is why we also work at the global level, in the conviction that brands and retailers are instrumental to driving sustainability in the sector. We engage with them to stimulate increased demand for sustainable cotton. We work with brands, retailers and wholesalers to connect their supply chain to our projects on the ground. We bring our civil society perspective to collective efforts to increase the sustainability of the entire sector, for example by participating in the Better Cotton Initiative.
“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.”
Riyaz Haider BioSustain Ltd., Tanzania
Adidas takes top spot for sustainable cotton, too many global companies still score zero
Adidas has surged ahead to become a global leader in sourcing sustainable cotton. From 6th place in the last ranking, they now source 100% of their cotton from sustainable sources and lead the Cotton Ranking 2020 with the most established brand for sustainable cotton, IKEA in second, and H&M Group taking 3rd place.
Reviving organic cotton in Maharashtra, India
Stimulating organic growing techniques in Maharashtra State, India, was the focus at the second Cotton Trailblazers event. Maharashtra was an early adopter of organic cotton, but now trails other states. International delegates looked at how to reverse that trend and strengthen India's exemplary role as the world's leading supplier of the ubiquitous fibre.
It’s not rocket science: step by step guide to develop a sustainable materials strategy
Isabelle Roger, Solidaridad’s International Programme Coordinator for cotton, facilitated a panel discussion - titled ‘Why a sustainable materials strategy matters?’ - at the Global Cotton Sustainability Conference in Shanghai, which took place between 11 and 13 June. The panel consisted of sustainability experts from international fashion brands.
Blog: Can Southern African consumers save our farmers?
Solidaridad Managing Director for Southern Africa, Mandla Nkomo, examines the state of agriculture in his region and offers some possible solutions to improve the supply chains for a few essential commodities. Learn more about his insights gained from direct experience in the region over many years.
Solidaridad Annual Report 2018 signals growth throughout the network
Solidaridad exceeded its own targets by supporting more than half a million farmers, miners and workers in 2018. With improved capacity and expertise throughout the network, Solidaridad is now set to address the challenges of the future, according to results outlined in the Solidaridad Annual Report 2018 released today.
Bottom UP: Preventing a race to the bottom in the Ethiopian garment sector
Solidaridad, Cotton made in Africa, Danish Ethical Trading Initiative and MVO Nederland start a new project to promote a sustainable cotton and garment value chain, from Ethiopian cotton to European consumers.