Solidaridad’s interventions in 2017 led to improvements in both sustainable cotton supply and demand. It made contact with 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.
With the release of the second Sustainable Cotton Ranking, Solidaridad has ensured that the uptake of sustainable cotton remains high on the agenda. The improvements made by several companies assessed since 2016 indicate that awareness is increasing about the need for sustainable cotton. However, the number of companies that are lagging behind demonstrates that there is still a long way to go.
Regional Commodity Programmes
East & Central Africa
Solidaridad began a pilot aimed at introducing sustainable cotton production in Ethiopia for two commercial farms and one cooperative union linked to the supply chain of H&M. This is a result of recommendations made in a study conducted with the Cotton Association, commissioned by H&M and the Dutch government. A total of 1,200 workers will benefit from decent work practices and over 1,800 hectares of cotton will be converted to sustainable production.
Solidaridad North America, together with Solidaridad China, concluded a three-year-long project in China that was supported by the Walmart Foundation, focused on training women cotton farmers in good agricultural practices, leadership, community building and entrepreneurial skills. Solidaridad also continued to engage with leading North American brands.
The cotton sector is strengthening its connection with countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe and this is a direct result of increased support from both governments. In 2017, Solidaridad hosted the Network Global Cotton Meeting in Jozini, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The three-day meeting was attended by Solidaridad cotton experts and key regional players such as Cotton South Africa, Cotton Association of Zambia and the Sustainable Cotton Cluster Initiative. Insights from both programmes were shared with the global team and new approaches were developed for improving farmer profitability, use of digital tools and innovative financing.
The cotton project focuses on reducing the application of fertilizers and chemicals, mainstreaming water-saving technologies and integrated pest management techniques. In addition, this project promotes decent work and field management for improving fibre quality. It also provided technical training and support to 1,650 farmers in cultivating sustainable cotton in Guazhou City of Gansu Province with a total area of 1,35.86 hectares.
The six-year project with the C&A Foundation to develop a profitable model for small cotton growing in the Brazilian semi-arid entered its second year. In order to cope with droughts, the project distributed 32 drip irrigation kits that almost tripled average productivity. Based on participatory planning with women, the project will also improve irrigation of backyard vegetable gardens to provide families with a surplus to sell in local markets.
Sustainable cotton production continued to increase in 2017 and now accounts for 15% of total global production. While this is only a small proportion of global production, it demonstrates a clear trend toward sustainable cotton. This reflects the rising profile of sustainability in the textile industry in general.
There is growing awareness among brands, retailers and suppliers of the importance of sourcing and utilizing sustainably produced cotton. This awareness needs to translate into action to respond to higher expectations of transparency in cotton production. Programmes such as the Better Cotton Initiative are continuing to gain momentum.
The development of a more sustainable sector is further reflected in the policies of cotton producing countries, where regulations have begun to address sustainability concerns. In Ethiopia, for example, the National Cotton Development & Research Strategy has been finalized after 15 years. In China, there is increasing emphasis on key sustainability issues. This includes improving processes for promoting mechanical picking, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and increasing fibre quality.
Overall awareness of the issues in the textile industry has increased. Brands and retailers have responded by joining initiatives to tackle problems that span the cotton and textile sectors. Solidaridad is continuing to support these efforts and to explore ways to connect improvements in the cotton sector with advances in the textile industry, both within and outside the organization.
In 2017, Solidaridad partnered with a variety of organizations across the cotton supply chain and sector. These included:
Cotton producer organizations
Cotton ginning and trading companies
Input providers (seed and fertilizer companies)
Government cotton authorities
Retailers and brands
Together with Pesticides Action Network and World Wildlife Fund, Solidaridad published the second Sustainable Cotton Ranking. It also conducted a successful pilot on sustainable cotton in Ethiopia along with Enterprise Partners, the UK Department for International Development, H&M and several supply chain partners. Solidaridad is now working on plans to link the achievements in cotton to its work in the textile sector, with the aim of establishing a fully sustainable supply chain from cotton farmers, to manufacturers, brands and retailers and, eventually, consumers.
The issues for the cotton sector generally remain consistent from year to year. The overuse of pesticides and water inefficiency at all stages of the supply chain cause irreversible environmental harm. Poor working conditions affect farmers’ health and safety, while child labour and forced labour continue to pervade conventional cotton production. For many farmers, cotton production is still not a viable business, as their incomes are subject to global market volatility and many farmers are pushed into debt by the high cost of materials such as pesticides and fertilizers.
Each country and region faces its own challenges. In China, for example, the introduction of a new cotton policy led to a dramatic drop in cotton prices in both 2014 and 2015. As a result, many farmers scaled back planting or abandoned production entirely. Solidaridad has shifted the focus of its project to better support women farmers with business and leadership skills so they can identify new opportunities to increase their income.
Another persistent problem for farmers is lack of market access. There are also opportunities, however, as the industry focuses more on issues such as transparency and traceability. For example, factories are increasingly interested in working with local cotton producers. In Ethiopia, Solidaridad has started to connect sustainable cotton producers with factories that want to make their products more sustainable.
Solidaridad seeks to continue to strengthen the connections between the cotton and textiles industries in 2018.