Catalysing collaborative change within cotton supply chains

Catalysing collaborative change within cotton supply chains

Katharine Earley speaks to Rosanne Gray about CottonConnect’s role in catalysing positive change within cotton supply chains, creating economic opportunities for global brands and smallholder farmers, and the business benefits of sourcing more sustainable cotton.

‘More sustainable cotton’, encompassing Fairtrade and organic cotton, represents less than 2% of the world’s fibre. The great majority of cotton is still cultivated conventionally, using 16% of the world’s pesticides and consuming colossal amounts of water – it can take up to 2,600 litres of water to produce one T-shirt, estimates the Water Footprint Network.

Pesticides used in cotton cultivation can pose serious health risks to workers in developing countries (where, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee, cotton is thought to account for 50% of pesticide use), contribute to downstream pollution and soil degradation, and damage precious biodiversity. However, the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers are often inextricably linked to cotton production, with more than 4m farmers in India alone farming cotton on less than one hectare.

CottonConnect has forged a strong reputation for driving positive action in cotton supply chains, working directly with both global brands and suppliers – farmers, ginners and spinners alike – to achieve a more sustainable source of cotton supply. SOURCE contributor Katharine Earley asks CEO Rosanne Gray about the history, aims and activities of the company, and the benefits it delivers to clothing and textile businesses.

 1.      Please could you tell me a little about the history of CottonConnect?

RG: CottonConnect was established in 2009 in a unique collaboration between three companies – C&A, the Textile Exchange and the Shell Foundation. It was created primarily to tackle the complex challenges facing cotton supply chains – in particular, the lack of visibility that has created significant blind spots within manufacturers’ global operations. Our aim is to create economic opportunity for both brands and suppliers, securing a future source of supply while protecting the environment and reducing poverty. It’s a business-focused, market-oriented approach.

Importantly, the three founder partners wanted the wider apparel industry to benefit from our work, in order to generate impact at scale. 40% of raw materials in the clothing and textile industry are accounted for by cotton, therefore securing a sustainable source of supply is vital. Today, we work with a broad spectrum of global brands and fashion retailers – including John Lewis, Adidas, Levi Strauss, M&S and Walmart – on organic, ‘Better cotton’ and ‘More sustainable cotton’ programmes.

In tandem, we work directly with more than 50,000 smallholder farmers across South Asia and China, helping them to understand and implement more sustainable practices as well as identifying solutions to implement some of these practices. No single company or organisation has previously played this ‘connecting role’, from field to garment.

Finally, while various environmental standards exist, they invariably address different issues. CottonConnect brings clarity on this subject and helps companies to build knowledge and comply with the standard that’s most appropriate to their specific business challenges.

2.      What are CottonConnect’s key aims?

RG: CottonConnect has three principal aims. By 2015, we hope to: facilitate the production of approximately 500m garments made from more sustainably grown cotton, positively affect the livelihoods of more than 500,000 farmers and their families, and increase the land under sustainable cotton cultivation practices by 1m acres.

All our activities contribute to poverty alleviation and cutting environmental impacts. Our over-arching commitment to our customers is to provide a tailored, flexible solution that enhances their business and helps them to engage more positively with both suppliers and consumers.

3.      How does CottonConnect work with smallholder farmers?

RG: Our focus is very much on generating large scale impacts and we specifically target key cotton growing areas. We helped to facilitate the creation of 50m garments made from more sustainable cotton in 2011.

We help farmers to reduce their input costs by reducing synthetic fertiliser usage and using smarter irrigation techniques to manage, monitor and evaluate water consumption. Our teams on the ground introduce a variety of techniques, such as vermicomposting, crop rotation, furrow irrigation and drip irrigation, and help farmers to embrace them effectively.

The benefits of drip irrigation compared to flood irrigation in cotton farming include: efficiency increases of up to 60% in water usage and 30% in fertiliser use, as well as a yield increase of up to 20%. CottonConnect is bringing together state subsidies, drip companies, banks and brands to find viable solutions to expanding the usage of drip technologies for cotton farmers.

Our teams in each country are all native agricultural and supply chain experts, so there are no communication barriers. Many of them are also farmers themselves. They help to educate new generations of cotton farmers, delivering valuable training and establishing long-term working relationships.

 4. How is the impact of CottonConnect’s work measured?

RG: Gathering real data on brand supply chains is a really new space. Previously, most data available has been at country or state level. We are developing effective quantitative and qualitative techniques to help measure the impact of our work at a local level.

We have created farmer field books for instance – now used by more than 20,000 small holder farmers in India and China – in which data improvements such as water and fertiliser usage are logged. This is currently a manual process, however, we are confident that this will change over time, with mobile technology playing an ever greater role.

We are also actively involved in impact studies with various scientific organisations. For example, we’ve recently conducted an impact study in India in partnership with C&A and the Water Footprint Network, examining grey (waste) water in the supply chain.

Importantly, working with farmers is very much about an exchange of knowledge. We learn from each other all the time. It’s a collaborative, partnership-based approach, and we absolutely see ourselves as a practical, hands-on team, willing to both roll our sleeves up and tackle pressing issues, and devise bespoke cotton strategies.

5.      How does CottonConnect work with large fashion brands and retailers?

RG: Our starting point is always the brand or retailer. We begin by understanding our client’s needs and identifying how we can benefit their business. We then quickly get to grips with the focus of the organisation, map their cotton supply chain, create a plan of action and connect with key actors within the chain.

We have developed a strategy for C&A to procure enough organic cotton to meet its ethical sourcing goals over the next four years. Similarly, John Lewis is committed to sourcing more sustainable cotton from Gujarat, India, and in particular, is keen to communicate this story in a compelling way to its consumers. In this scenario, we are managing hands-on supply chain initiatives and advising on communication to the end customer.

We also work with the Better Cotton Fast Track Fund (BCFTF), an international group of retailers, brands and funders (including Nike, Ikea, M&S, Levi Strauss and H&M), on large scale cotton projects in India. Additionally, we are creating opportunities for wider Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) members to invest in their own BCI project at farm level.

Through our work with the BCFTF, we have embarked on a five year programme to produce ‘Better cotton’ in Maharastra and Gujarat, India. BCI’s goal is that by 2015, the farmers involved will be producing more than one million tonnes of ‘Better cotton’.

Overall, we help brands to create more committed supply chains. For example, we host value chain meetings, where we sit down in the same room with ginners, spinners and procurement teams and air challenges in a non-confrontational way. We help to identify collaborative solutions and inspire more positive ways of working.

This year, for example, we brought buyers directly to the cotton fields in Xinjiang, China – most of them had never been to a cotton field or met any of their farmers in person. The trip was extremely eye-opening. In particular, the buyers learnt why it was important to harvest the crop at a certain time of year and how to account for this within ordering patterns.

6.      How does CottonConnect’s work deliver business benefits to brands?

RG: Fashion brands are acutely aware of the risk to their businesses presented by a potential lack of availability of cotton in the future. By working with CottonConnect, manufacturers engage further back in their supply chain – they understand exactly how their cotton is produced. We help them to raise the environmental performance of their supply chain and reduce their environmental and socio-economic impacts. Increasingly, we’re also seeing that companies want to boost the volume of ethically produced cotton in the wider marketplace.

In summary, I’d say that we help companies to transform the way they work with cotton suppliers, generating a positive financial return, helping them to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and driving consumer engagement with the brand.

7.      How can policy-makers help to resolve some of the key challenges of sustainable cotton farming?

RG: Regulation has an important role to play in the future – governments need to make decisions in conjunction with businesses, while businesses must work collaboratively to influence government. Officials should also consider how their policy-making decisions may affect local economies, as well as how to reduce environmental impacts. For example, the recent case of Indian officials closing dye houses in Tamil Nadu, India, is a good case in point. This may have halted the unsustainable practices in place but the workers are now out of work.

More strategic, collaborative solutions are needed to help resolve these complex issues. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index is a good example of a joint initiative that’s driving action on sustainability in the fashion sector.

8. How will the challenges of sustainable cotton farming evolve over time?

RG: One critical challenge is that today’s farmers don’t always want to be farmers in the future. With economic prosperity in India and China continuing apace and the middle classes rapidly expanding, manual work is perceived as backward and undesirable. So, one of the major challenges is how to encourage a positive perception of farmers as entrepreneurs and not backward agriculturalists.

At CottonConnect, we also want to help strengthen the standing of farmers within the community and build their businesses by for example helping them to sell their own natural fertilisers to other local farmers.

Other well-documented problems for the future include water scarcity, climate change and the great food-fuel-fibre land fight. We foresee a real push for measurement of environmental – and in particular water – impacts in the future.

Finally, the demand for transparency will only grow stronger over time. Brands will need to take greater action to achieve positive change within their supply chains, and communicate their progress clearly to consumers. In the same way that you can walk into a supermarket and see which country or region (or even farmer) has produced your food, so in the fashion sector, I would hope that within five to ten years we will see the same level of transparency communicated via clothing labels.

9.      What are CottonConnects’s plans for 2013?

Next year we plan to continue growing the number of farmers with whom we work, and developing our current programmes further. We will continue operating at a global level and wherever our clients’ business challenges take us, as we work to achieve our vision on transforming the world’s cotton for good.

This article was published on the Ethical Fashion Forum’s SOURCE Intellligence website.