Transforming the textile industry with Fairtrade cotton

The following article was written by Subindu Garkhel and first published at The Guardian on July 21, 2015.

Fairtrade cotton farm labourer Sapna Mandloi, 20, picks cotton in Narendra Patidar’s farm in Karhi, Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Photograph: Suzanne Lee/Fairtrade Foundation

Taking home a living wage is vital for all of us, to help bring a level of security and the ability to plan for the future. I would argue that this is even more vital for people living in poorer countries where there is no provision for basic services such as health and education.

Fairtrade’s focus is working with the most vulnerable in developing countries, securing market access and better terms of trade for farmers and workers so they can provide for themselves and their families. Up to 100 million smallholder farmers depend on cotton for their income and most of these farmers struggle to earn a decent living. They are at the very end of the supply chain and tend to be forgotten.

When it comes to clothing, companies’ information was once limited to who their importer was. Now they are engaging with their supply chain more and have better awareness of the factories used to produce what they sell. Even before the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, there had been a focus on improving the conditions experienced by textile factory workers.

Some have awareness beyond the factories and these are all movements in the right direction. However, even those mindful of the difficulties faced by factory workers, tend to miss the first links in the supply chain - the cotton farmers in India, West Africa and beyond – who are often left without a thought or protection.

Our belief is that people now care more about where their clothes come from. The textile industry does not tend to see far enough down the value chain to ensure that those who grow their cotton also receive a living income.

At Fairtrade, our vision is that ethics and sustainability can be pulled together as one and we can work together to make sure that all sections of the workforce are prioritized. The clothing marketplace is very competitive and Fairtrade is a simple way to instil confidence in the consumer. What better way can there be for brands to show their customers they care for everyone, from cotton farmer to customer?

This year I visited cotton farmers in Pratibha-Vasudha, India, a Fairtrade cooperative in Madhya Pradesh. I saw the safety net that Fairtrade brings; the promise of a minimum price that works despite competition from subsidized production in the US and EU, and the insecurities of global cotton pricing. These farmers democratically decide how the Fairtrade Premium is spent: on training to improve soil and productivity and on the most important ways for their communities to benefit, such as building health centers and educating children.

Global Fairtrade cotton figures are up 28% year-on-year. These figures are still too small. Where sales increase, whole communities can benefit. Fairtrade has brought in a new program, the Fairtrade Cotton Sourcing Program, which is more flexible, more cost effective and easier for companies to work with. This allows us to scale up volume and make sure that more benefits get back to the farmers. This means there are now two ways of engaging with Fairtrade, either the finished product is certified or a brand can commit to sourcing a certain amount of cotton on Fairtrade terms. More details on the new Sourcing Program can be found here.

At Fairtrade we are enabling businesses to have traceability and more transparency in their supply chains to secure the future of cotton farmers, their families and communities. Farmers must be recognized for the significant role they play in our textile industry so that together we can truly transform people’s lives.

Consumers want their clothes made well and ethically, without harmful agrochemicals and exploitation. We think about farmers when we talk about food. Let’s start thinking about farmers when we think about clothing too.

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