C&A Foundation working to address concerns in organic cotton supply chain
Farmers at the core of all organic programs Madhya Pradesh emerges as frontrunner of organic movement ‘The Cotton Trailblazers’ brings stakeholders together in Bhopal to celebrate the efforts of MP in the domain
About 24 per cent of the world’s organic cotton is produced in Madhya Pradesh. This is good for Indian farmers, good for Madhya Pradesh and good for India. Most of all, it is good for the apparel industry to which it supplies. The apparel industry depends to a great extent on cotton; 26 per cent of all garments and textiles are made from cotton, but cotton cultivation is not without its challenges. It is a ‘thirsty crop’ using copious amount of water. When grown conventionally, the chemicals that it uses can damage the health of the farmers, their communities, and of the environment.
C&A Foundation is a corporate foundation affiliated to global retailer, C&A. Its aim is to transform the apparel industry, working with partners such as Non-Governmental Organisations, brands, and Governments to address the systemic issues that makes fashion one of the world’s most polluting industries.
The detrimental effects of cotton cultivation, is one of those issues that C&A Foundation is working to tackle by accelerating the production of organic cotton.
In almost every aspect, organic cotton is better for the environment and for the farmers who grow it. By eliminating all hazardous synthetic chemicals in its production; organic cotton offers a healthy and sustainable farming future for farmers, their families and the environment. Removing this toxic impact means rejuvenating the soil and its fertility. In the long run this low input production system also offers economic benefits to farmers. A recent Life Cycle Analysis study conducted in Madhya Pradesh shows that organic cotton consumes 93 per cent less fresh water than conventional cotton. Its climate change potential is also almost 50 per cent less than conventional cotton. At the same time, the global demand for organic cotton is increasing.
Yet, the organic cotton sector has been on the brink of a serious crisis for some years now. The challenges in the sector are not only vast, but also sustained by systemic market forces. Organic cotton production has been declining for some time now. There is a lack of transparency in the organic cotton supply chain, integrity of the product itself is often questionable and no real benefits are cascading down to the thousands of smallholder farmers sustaining the sector. Worse still, the enablers that will allow the organic sector to thrive are missing; there is only a limited supply of high-quality non-GMO seeds, there is a severe lack of investment into extension and the supply chain is not organized to allow for fair distribution of value for organic cotton farmers. At C&A Foundation we made it our business to try to fix this. The foundation works with nine partners across five countries, touching the lives of over 44,000 cotton farmers in India, Pakistan, China, Brazil and Tanzania. In each of these countries, C&A Foundation works with various stakeholders on different levels to design solutions that are holistic and intentional, designed to disrupt the status quo and alter the underlying structures that are currently holding back the organic cotton market.
But nowhere has this work been more important than in India, specifically in Madhya Pradesh. India is the largest organic cotton producing country in the world and over 40 per cent of the total agricultural land under organic cultivation in India is in Madhya Pradesh. The state is home to marginal and tribal farmers who produce nearly 24 per cent of the world’s organic cotton. With this global importance, it is no wonder that the state has been proactive in setting a policy framework that supports the promotion of organic cultivation, launching the State Policy on Organic Farming in Madhya Pradesh in 2011.
Since 2014, C&A Foundation has been supporting cotton farmers in Madhya Pradesh to introduce organic agricultural practises in collaboration with four dedicated partners – Action for Social Advancement, Aga Khan Foundation, CottonConnect and WWF-India. It has invested over
EUR 5 million to support over 25,000 smallholder cotton farmers in the state. In 2016-17, C&A Foundation partners reported on an aggregate that farmers in the programs have seen an income increase of over 20 per cent as compared to conventional farmers in the same areas, thanks to over 35 per cent decrease in production cost. This even when after three years, organic cotton yields remain 15 per cent lower than that of conventional cotton.
Anita Chester, Head of Sustainable Raw Materials for C&A Foundation explains the organisation’s approach: “Farmers are at the heart of our program and our partners work hard to build resilience in the communities by helping them choose organic over conventional. In scaling this momentum and addressing barriers jointly we have seen the strength of collaboration: of people, organizations and the State Government working together.”
In addition to direct farmer support, the Foundation has also supported farmers to unite into collectives to create an enabling environment for organic cotton cultivation. Ashis Mondal, Founder and Managing Director of C&A Foundation Partner, Action for Social Advancement (ASA) explains: “The true value of organic cotton will only be unlocked when farmers are truly integrated in the supply chain. This can happen through the power of collectives such as farmer producer companies. With support from C&A Foundation we have been able to attract others who have now joined us in this journey. In the coming years ASA plans to engage 25,000 organic cotton farmers in Madhya Pradesh and create a federation of these farmers who will be the torchbearers for the industry and the state.”
Another important approach to the systemic issues is to work through collaborative platforms such as the multi-stakeholder initiative that C&A Foundation jointly created with others, called the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA). It convenes apparel industry stakeholders around a common agenda for organic cotton, catalysing action and co-ordinating investments at both the supply and demand ends of the organic cotton supply chain. Apart from C&A the OCA includes brands such as H&M, Eileen Fisher, Tchibo, Inditex to name a few.
Crispin Argento, Executive Director of the Organic Cotton Accelerator says of the initiative: “Brands and retailers recognize that for the organic cotton sector to thrive there needs to be a clear business case for the farmers. We at the OCA are trying out various business models that creates most value all across the supply chain – including, and especially, the organic cotton farmers. Madhya Pradesh as the global leader for organic cotton production will lead the way for this change.”
C&A Foundation has also been engaging with the State Government to build a roadmap for scaling organic farming in Madhya Pradesh. Through a multistakeholder platform supported by the Foundation – the Organic and Fairtrade Cotton Secretariat – several initiatives have started to address challenges of organic cotton cultivation in the state. This works alongside the State Government’s vision to double farmers’ income by 2022, catalysing further growth. Together with its partners, C&A Foundation and the Government of Madhya Pradesh will continue to support organic cotton farmers, and expand the state’s existing leadership in organic cotton in India and the world, positively impacting farmer livelihoods and contributing to the creation of responsibly produced consumer goods by major global brands.
These efforts will be further showcased in an event called The Cotton Trailblazers in Bhopal on 8th May 2018. The event will bring together diverse stakeholders in the organic cotton supply chain to celebrate Madhya Pradesh’s position as a leader in organic cotton and showcase the role of organic farming, while inviting stakeholders to continue to work collaboratively to build a prosperous organic cotton market that impacts all – from farm to store – positively.
Dinesh Khanna for C&A Foundation