Cotton! It's everywhere, and it's impossible to imagine the fashion industry without this super-soft versatile fabric. Cotton is the world's oldest commercial crop, and is grown in more than a hundred countries worldwide. When you take into account all the services connected to cotton farming like transportation, ginning and baling, an estimated 350 million people work in the cotton sector.
And yet, despite the vital importance of this raw commodity which stands firmly at the centre of multi-billion dollar global garment and textile industries, growing cotton is failing to provide millions of rural households in developing countries - primarily in Asia and Africa - with a sustainable and profitable livelihood. Climate change, prices that have been artificially lowered by subsidies, the intensive use of hazardous chemicals, child labour and vicious cycles of debt and moneylending are just a few of the critical issues faced by cotton communities.
What's happening in India?
India is home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, and they don't have it easy. Unpredictable weather patterns play havoc with crop cycles as global warming takes hold. Hundreds of thousands of children under 18 have been reported to work 12+ hour days in cotton production, often bonded by loans given to their parents.
In India, cotton accounts for 54% of all synthetic pesticides used annually; toxic chemicals that are banned in the West and classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation are still sold in India and used in cotton farming. These dangerous pesticides not only directly impact the health of farm workers, but they are expensive - and alongside dependence on genetically engineered seeds and chemical fertilisers, farmers face spiralling debts and increased healthcare costs. A shocking number of farmers have been driven to the desperate act of suicide.
Did you know that 280,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the last 20 years? It's the largest wave of suicides ever recorded in human history, and yet it's largely unreported. And, tragically, it's ongoing. Two thirds of these farmer suicides have occurred in cotton growing regions; the plague of debt and instability drives many to ingest the very pesticides they have been tied into buying for use on their crops.
How does fair trade make a difference?
Fair trade offers a radically different alternative. It's about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world, giving producers a shared platform from which to voice their concerns and strike deals.
The primary aim of official Fairtrade certification is to tackle poverty through better terms of trade as well as giving farmers greater power within their trading relationships. By requiring purchasing companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the Fairtrade Minimum Price or Cost of Sustainable Production), fair trade protects against volatile market fluctuations. It supports strong, entrepreneurial and representative farmer organisations, and enables small-scale producers to have so much more control over their lives.
The Fairtrade scheme also supports farmers to manage the environmental and health risks of cotton farming, banning certain chemicals and encouraging best practices that are truly sustainable and protect local biodiversity. Strict social standards are set in place too, with forced labour and child labour prohibited, and no discrimination of members or workers on the basis of race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, disability, HIV/AIDS status, nationality or social origin, political opionion or trade union membership permitted.
The Fairtrade Premium
In addition to fair prices, producers are paid an extra Fairtrade Premium which can only be spent collectively. This group dialogue has been transformational in bringing people together to fund projects that benefit the whole community – from water resource management to healthcare, education and training. You can see what the Fairtrade Premium has done for this farming community who helped grow cotton for India’s largest t-shirt, and read more about Fairtrade Premium usage on the Fairtrade India website.
Who grew your cotton?
Today, India grows the most Fairtrade certified cotton globally, which is made into products ranging from clothing and bags to home textiles such as towels. Fair trade cooperatives and producer groups are growing in membership year on year. But there is so much yet to be done – and urgently. Those farmer suicide numbers are shocking. By increasing demand for fair trade, organic cotton, we can help to open the door for more farmers to be supported in switching to sustainable practices and taking control over their livelihoods.
I am proud to use organic, Fairtrade certified Indian cotton for the lining, backing and packaging of Gold is a Neutral bags: these fabrics are plain and simple-looking in comparison to the artisan textiles on the front of the clutches, but are every bit as precious and meaningful. Let's stand together in support of change, and in support of bringing fairness and pride back to an industry that forms the fabric of our lives.
“By offering Fairtrade cotton products, businesses are contributing to a more sustainable future for cotton farmers, their communities and the environment. And by purchasing them, consumers are choosing products that change lives.”
- Fairtrade Foundation
Fairtrade Foundation's Cotton Commodity Briefing, 2015
Environmental Justice Foundation
Images © Fairtrade India, Fairtrade International