"With global cotton industry under scrutiny for using forced and child labor and polluting the environment, Western companies are now working with farmers to clean up fashion's leading natural fiber - and its complex supply chain. The phenomenon is visible with a crop of farmers coming ahead towards this cause. Kanchen Kanjarya is one such example having a small farm in Mayapur, Gujarat."
With global cotton industry under scrutiny for using forced and child labor and polluting the environment, Western companies are now working with farmers to clean up fashion's leading natural fiber - and its complex supply chain. The phenomenon is visible with a crop of farmers coming ahead towards this cause. Kanchen Kanjarya is one such example having a small farm in Mayapur, Gujarat.
Working for eight hours a day on the six acre plot, Kanjarya is one of millions of small holder farms in India supplying cotton to garment factories making clothes for Western brands. Kanjarya is one of 1,250 women farmers in Gujarat, India's biggest cotton and cottonseed producing state, taking part in one of a number of small initiatives led by companies to combat environmental problems and break the cycle of child labour.
For the past three years, these women farmers have had classes and infield training twice a month in sustainable farming methods such as water efficiency, natural pesticides, and soil health, designed to increase cotton yields and income. The pilot, by social enterprise CottonConnect, India's Self Employed Women's Association and funded by UK budget retailer Primark, has pushed up profits more than two-fold and is expanding to 10,000 farmers over six years, its founders say.
Elsewhere in India, the C&A Foundation, affiliated with global retailer C&A (and in a partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on trafficking), is working with various groups to help 25,000 farmers move to organic cotton. And the non-profit Better Cotton Initiative, set up in 2005, has nearly 1,000 members including retailers like IKEA, H&M, Burberry and Adidas, committed to fair work practices in cotton and regulated use of land, chemicals and water. They have been witnessing an increasing trend of companies getting involved in cotton production.
Alison Ward, Chief Executive at CottonConnect says, the world is changing and it is starting to be far more about local sourcing but getting to the middle of the supply chain is a real challenge. Only 10-12 percent of cotton globally is sustainable and it will take time, effort and investment to shift to farming methods that could boost profits and combat labor abuses in the crop historically plagued by slavery.
Experts say cotton supply chain is the hardest to crack as the journey from field to store involves so many stages – from seed production, to cotton growing, to gins to separate seeds and fibre, spinning mills to garment factories.
India’s global positioning
India, the world's second largest cotton producer after China and ahead of the United States and Pakistan, is the only country named for having child and forced labour in both cottonseed production as well as cotton growing. Indian group Glocal Research's 2014 study ‘Cotton's Forgotten Children’ found the number of children under 14 working on cottonseed farms doubled from 2010 to 200,000 with small hands useful in cross pollination to produce hybrid seeds.
In pockets of Gujarat and Rajasthan, the situation has deteriorated and the issue is what defines a family enterprise and whether children registered for school do attend.
MC Karina, Deputy Rural Labor Commissioner for Gujarat, claimed they have been working on this concern for the last eight years and are now sure that not a single child is working on the cottonseed farms.
Global brands take initiatives
With the complexity and lack of transparency in the cotton supply chain, international brands are getting more involved for the sake of their reputation and to meet ethical commitments. Katharine Stewart, Primark's ethical trade and environmental sustainability director, said her company set out to find an ethical and sustainable way to produce cotton at the same price as conventional cotton. Organic and Fairtrade has a premium. Primark, part of Associated British Foods, sells low-priced clothes such as $5 T-shirts in 11 countries, and is constantly under pressure to explain how it makes clothes so affordable without exploiting workers.
Stewart said the retailer, with a high volume, low cost business model, ensured workers were well treated in supplier factories and paid at least the minimum wage with regular and surprise audits but wanted to dig further into the supply chain. She said the Gujarat pilot proved sustainable cotton could be produced at the same price as conventional cotton. Definitely there are little signs of improvements, but there's a long way to go.