Shining A Light On The Forgotten Farmers In Fashion’s Supply Chain
Via The Guardian Fairness was on the agenda at this year’s Berlin Fashion Week, as Fairtrade International, Continental Clothing Co. and others encouraged fresh thinking to make the industry more sustainable. In fact, we are at the forefront of change as companies begin to respond to a strong movement from all quarters to end unethical fashion. They want to know their clothes haven’t been made by children or through forced labour, nor using processes that drain the world’s precious water supplies. Cotton is the number one raw commodity that the multi-billion dollar global clothing industry depends on, yet the majority of cotton farmers live below the poverty line, dependent on middle men who take advantage of them, paying well below the cost of production. But things are changing and consumers and businesses are increasingly taking a stand. Fairtrade cotton was launched to put the spotlight on the farmers who are often left invisible, neglected and poor at the end of a long and complex supply chain. A new initiative launched during fashion week is an example of how a greater share of profits can begin to be passed back to farmers and workers. Fair Share from manufacturer Continental Clothing Co. offers a range of 100% Fairtrade organic cotton t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, alongside a pilot to help garment workers achieve a living wage. Under its new line with Fairtrade, Continental has ordered 300,000 items of clothing using cotton from Pratima Agro Fairtrade co-operative in Orissa, India which will ensure farmers receive a stable price for their cotton. On top of this, sales will raise additional Fairtrade premiums to invest in projects to improve their businesses and communities. Continental already had a strong track record in terms of environmental sustainability - even the bricks in their factory are recycled - but they wanted to do more in response to numerous requests from the market. As one of the UK’s biggest t-shirt manufacturers, the move means that small businesses and suppliers can source clothes that comply with Fairtrade’s robust environmental and social standards and increased sales equal greater impact for farmers. Fairtrade not only means the farmers who grow cotton have received a fair price and premium, but it also requires them to take good care of their land, promoting sustainable agricultural practices. For example 75% of Fairtrade cotton is grown with harvested rainwater and this, coupled with drip irrigation techniques, can make a big difference. And with India currently experiencing its worst water crisis in four decades, methods to control usage of thirsty crops like cotton, are absolutely vital for coping with these shortages and securing food crops, as well as protecting people’s livelihoods. Just last month I saw the difference this makes when I visited RDFC co-operative in Gujarat, where members are 100% shareholders of a company they have formed to take more control in an industry which all too often marginalises farmers. I met a farmer who told me what life was like before Fairtrade, when he was on the verge of giving up his land. He was extremely poor, living in a hut on desert land where nothing could grow and he just couldn’t cope. Fortunately, his co-operative used funds generated by cotton sales from the Fairtrade premium to invest in drip irrigation and to distribute higher quality seedlings. This improved both the cultivation of cotton and other crops by making the soil more fertile. He was able to keep his land and now, eight years on, he lives in a comfortable brick house. He and other members of the co-operative proudly showed me around their farms which they so clearly love, despite seasonal dry spells and the sweat and tears involved in growing cotton. With subsidies and training from the co-op and premium investment they have bought organic seeds, which are cheaper than genetically modified seeds, better quality and suitable for their local conditions, soil and limited water. After I got back there was more good news. They sent me a message to tell me that the first rains had finally arrived, meaning they can now prepare to sow these seeds, marking a new, prosperous season. Beyond farming communities, Fairtrade is also making a difference across the whole supply chain. Three brands signed up to the Textile Standard and Programmein Berlin last week. And it isn’t just Continental who are cottoning on to the benefits of Fairtrade. Earlier this year Aldi UK launched a range of Fairtrade cotton t-shirts and TfL became the first UK company and public sector body to sign up to the Fairtrade Cotton Sourcing Programme, a new initiative which aims to deliver wider market opportunities for cotton farmers. By investing in Fairtrade cotton uniforms or other products, businesses also contribute to a more sustainable future for farmers, their communities and the environment. In the past year Fairtrade has been on a real journey in textiles. Our new initiatives and commitments from businesses are returning a fairer share from the lucrative garment trade to farmers and workers. It’s great to see businesses respond to customer demands for ethically sourced clothing. But we need to get more Fairtrade cotton in our shops and in our companies. We would now like to see other big companies follow these examples of best practice and take their ethical credentials on transparency and sustainability further. You can make a difference. If you work in the fashion industry, source cotton that’s ethical, eco-friendly and sustainable. If you work in procurement, source Fairtrade cotton for your business. If you are a consumer, use your purchasing power to demand more from brands. Photos 1 & 2 by The Fair Trade Association. Photo 3 by Didier Gentilhomme.