- The fashion industry uses around two-thirds of cotton fibres produced worldwide
- Most farmers live in developing countries and grow cotton on fewer than two hectares
- Crops are exposed to heat, drought, floods and wildfires caused by climate change
- Lack of private sector finance a barrier to farmers switching to more resilient practices
- Better Cotton’s Sustainable Livelihoods Approach aims to help farmers earn a ‘living income’
September 18 – Cotton is ubiquitous in human lives, with approximately half of all textiles made of the material, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The fashion industry uses around two-thirds of cotton fibres produced worldwide, giving it immense influence over the livelihoods of the 350 million people who work in the cotton supply chain.
Major producing countries include India, United States, China, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey. Some 250 million people work in cotton processing, while 100 million are farmers who grow cotton.
The vast majority of these farmers grow their crop on fewer than two hectares of land and are located in developing countries, including in 30 ranked by the United Nations as low in its development index measuring healthy lives, education and standard of living.
The cotton sector is a huge user of water and pesticides, and its human rights record has come under increased scrutiny, especially since allegations of forced labour of Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang province. Read more
The sector’s sustainability issues stand to be exacerbated by increased risk to extreme heat, drought, floods and wildfires already being caused by climate change, Forum for the Future warned in a 2021 report. Besides cutting yields, it will also affect the wellbeing of those involved in the supply chain, it noted.
“Smallholders are disproportionately impacted by the fact that they have very little financial resilience and very little climatic resilience, and an even smaller voice within the industry and cotton’s complex supply chains, which means that their knowledge and role as critical changemakers are often overlooked,” says Hannah Cunneen, Forum for the Future’s global principal in food and fibre value chains.
In 2022, widespread flooding in Pakistan affected or destroyed around 40% of the country’s cotton crop. In the U.S., drought led to the loss of around one million tonnes of cotton in West Texas, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Though the ICAC reported in December that production was still outstripping consumption by 1.2 million tonnes, the risks to the sector as climate change gathers pace were laid bare. Coping with climate change will require a response that goes “beyond incremental solutions to fundamental changes”, Forum for the Future said.
There is growing awareness in the cotton industry of the need to improve smallholder livelihoods. Non-profit Better Cotton is launching its Sustainable Livelihoods Approach to support smallholder farmers in improving their wellbeing and earning a “living income”, defined as that which would provide a decent standard of living. This year, it is gathering data to assess the gap between this goal and current incomes, and researching livelihood diversification and its contribution to household income.
Its recent conference featured discussions around how the cotton industry could learn from other sectors such as cocoa, where work on living incomes is more advanced.
But the sector has also focused specific programmes on climate resilience and livelihoods. Forum for the Future has just completed Cotton 2040, a three-year programme aiming to better understand the impact of climate on the sector, promote the uptake of sustainably sourced cotton and scale up more regenerative growing practices.
It is now piloting an ecosystem service market in cotton-growing regions in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee, in which producers can get paid for quantified benefits provided to society, such as improving soil health by eliminating tillage or incorporating cover crops; a significant reduction in water use; or increasing populations of wildlife, such as pollinators. So far, it has learned that though such markets play an essential role in promoting regenerative agriculture, they are not yet designed in a way that tackles social inequity.
For example, farmers from disadvantaged communities or ethnicities are less able to deal with the risk of reduced or failed crops from adopting regenerative agriculture practices.
Sustainable trade foundation IDH is trying to tackle the issue of making cotton smallholders and the land they grow on more resilient at a landscape level. Climate change is causing droughts and floods, but also increasing pest attacks on crops. This leads smallholders to increase use of pesticides, which is expensive for them and further degrades soil, explains Heleen Bulckens, senior programme manager of materials, textiles and manufacturing at IDH.
The organisation’s Climate-Smart Cotton Landscapes programme aims to improve farmer incomes while simultaneously regenerating their natural resource base by focusing not just on farm, but also across a whole landscape.
“We try to reimagine agricultural systems so that they’re based on resilience, sustainability and inclusivity,” Bulckens says. The programme aims to go beyond certification schemes to create systems change, which is possible when working across a geography, she says.
In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, IDH is working across nine cotton-growing districts covering 56,000 square kilometres. The programme is working with the state government, producers, private sector partners, such as India-based Fruitful, and local NGOs to provide more than 120,000 farmers with access to capacity-building, credit and inputs to support their adoption of regenerative practices so that sustainable land management practices are applied to more than 100,000 hectares of cropland by 2026.
The Laudes Foundation has provided catalytic funding, but IDH aims to make it sustainable in the long term by proving the business case for regenerative approaches so that the public sector, the market and other investors become involved in scaling the work, Bulckens explains.
However, persuading the private sector to invest in landscape-level projects is challenging, she says. “It’s a challenge to make companies that are interested in sustainable agriculture see beyond certification. You could easily have certification and a landscape approach, but we also need businesses to invest beyond the farm, in restoration of the wider landscape, which isn’t something that certification typically offers,” she says.
In addition, the benefits of landscape-level projects are hard to communicate to consumers. Though IDH is working on a data dashboard, it cannot yet offer businesses a way to credibly claima project’s contribution to reducing emissions, due to complexities of issues such as double-counting the same emissions reductions from the landscape, she notes.
Even if a business does invest in some landscape restoration work, it is reluctant to financially incentivise farmers to adopt regenerative practices, she says. “We’re seeing a misalignment between sustainability commitments on climate change and biodiversity, and their actual procurement practices, which is largely due to them not wanting to share value and risks equally with farmers.”
Cunneen of Forum for the Future believes that transparency over market information would help smallholders negotiate better prices. “They should be able to negotiate and make decisions based on what they experience to be true, whereas the way the cotton model and market works at the moment dictates how the cotton is to be grown, and how much they will be paid.”
The lack of financial support from the private sector is a barrier to farmers changing practices to become more resilient and regenerative, she says. “There’s a lot of talk about supporting farmers to change agronomic practices, but nobody is helping them to de-risk. There can be significant fiscal and yield implications, particularly for smallholder farmers, when altering their approaches to production.
“Farmers aren’t going to be able to change, because they can’t take on the risk of growing regenerative cotton alone. For example, if you experience a failed crop – or something more substantial, such as fire or flooding, due to changing climatic conditions, you’re not going to get paid,” she says.
The growing demand for cotton worldwide can also indirectly put further pressure on producers, and reduce opportunities to invest time and resources in adapting, she adds.
Cunneen believes the future for the cotton sector is bleak if it fails to support the whole supply chain, in recognition that the whole industry is premised on the ongoing ability for a producer to keep producing. “A significant amount of change is required, not just climate adaptation, but economic adaptation and mindset shifts. We’re currently operating beyond our planetary boundaries, and yet consumers and businesses think they can get more for less, so something’s got to go,” she says.
She adds: “Climate adaptation is happening, but it needs to happen at scale, it needs to be inclusive in order to be fully achieved because there’s cotton growing all over the world, so to focus on bits and pieces and only within your own pillar, or your own organisation, is not going to be enough.”
For Bulckens, the sector has “almost no choice” but to start collaborating not just with farmers, but across whole landscapes. “I would like to see the world at large view farmers as more than just producers of crops, but also as very valuable land stewards, who can help prevent drought and floods.
“If you organise all these land stewards properly, you can get a lot of ecosystem services from the area, it just requires a bit of zooming out of your own interests,” she says.
This article is part of the latest issue of The Ethical Corporation magazine, which is about sustainable fashion. You can download the digital pdf for free here
Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.