Fairtrade cotton has five times lower social and environmental footprint

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Millions of smallholder farmers do not earn enough money from conventional cotton farming to pay for life's essentials. New research by the Fairtrade Foundation aims to provide fashion brands with a useful new tool to improve the transparency of cotton sourcing and deepen understanding of their social and environmental responsibilities.

Unless cotton is farmed sustainably, its production leaves a heavy environmental and social toll which will affect its long term viability, the Fairtrade Foundation warned. 

Farmers are facing multiple long-term threats, including climate change, food security, biotechnology, the circular economy and ‘fast fashion’, trends which are combining to create both risks and opportunities for the cotton industry.

New research by the Fairtrade Foundation aims to provide fashion brands with a useful new tool to enhance visibility of their cotton sourcing and deepen understanding of their social and environmental responsibilities. The charity said that apparel brands that rely on cotton now have a real opportunity to make informed strategic decisions that will help create a more resilient business and be more accountable for their environmental and social impacts.

The study used a robust methodology which measured the environmental and social impacts on rural households in India, one of the world’s largest producers of cotton. 

The valuation tool translates environmental and social values into the language of business and economics. It converts impacts and dependencies into costs and benefits expressed in monetary terms. With an overall indication of cost and benefit, companies can identify trade-offs and synergies in a systematic way.
The study found that the combined social and environmental costs of Fairtrade cotton farming are five times lower than that of conventional cotton farming.

Data showed that the impacts of Fairtrade farming methods were 97% lower for the social elements and 31% lower for environmental components studied.

The most significant social advantage for Fairtrade farmers was having more income. The research compared community benefits from Fairtrade Premiums, fair wages, income for farmers, engagement of unacceptable labour practices, such as child labour and social cost of overtime. It revealed that Fairtrade cotton farmers tend to have lower social costs, and higher social benefits such as fairer wages and investment in local schools. 

Fairtrade cotton performed significantly better than conventional for all environmental KPIs cotton. Areas surveyed included land use, water pollutants, water use, GHG emissions and soil pollutants. It was only for land use where Fairtrade cotton’s cost was a little high as the yield for organic practices for cotton per acre is lower than conventional.

Subindu Garkhel, Cotton Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation said: “Cotton is an integral part of our lives, from the sheets on our beds to the identity we project through the clothes we wear. Not only that, but cotton also provides livelihoods for millions across the globe. 

“But there is a strong cost for people and planet with cultivating the cotton that goes into our clothes, and our study shows that is markedly higher for conventional cotton farming.

“This research illustrates how Fairtrade empowers farmers to decide their own future, is better for their communities and has a substantially lower footprint than conventional cotton.”

The research revealed that benefits such as the Fairtrade Minimum Price and the Fairtrade Premium are unique to Fairtrade certification, and conventional cotton farming was found to only provide income for farmers based on the local market prices for cotton.
The study was released to coincide with the anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, a tragedy which killed 1134 people and woke up the world to the problems in our fashion supply chains. 

It marks the start of Fashion Revolution Week (24th – 30th April 2017), the global campaign demanding greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.

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For more information, images or interviews, please contact Martine Parry in the Fairtrade Foundation Press Office martine.parry@fairtrade.org.uk 

Notes to editors:

About Fairtrade 
The international Fairtrade system exists to end poverty through trade. The Fairtrade Foundation is an independent certification body and NGO which licenses the use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on more than 5,000 products which meet its rigorous social, economic and environmental standards. This independent label signifies to consumers that farmers and workers across 75 developing countries are getting a better deal from trade. 

Today, more than 1.6 million people who work hard to produce coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, wines, flowers, cotton, gold and many other products benefit from Fairtrade, which campaigns for as well as enables a fairer system of global trade. 

In 2016, UK retail sales of Fairtrade certified products exceeded £1.65 billion. Volume growth also increased, meaning that an estimated financial premium totalling around £30 million will go to farmers and producers across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Caribbean to allow them to continue delivering improvements for themselves and their communities. 

Beyond certification, the Fairtrade Foundation is deepening its impact by delivering specialist programmes to help disadvantaged communities boost productivity in the face of challenges such as climate change.  


How Fairtrade works in cotton
  • Fairtrade Minimum Price protects against volatile market prices
  • Fairtrade Premium for strategic investment (fertilisers, pesticides, fuel, yield and quality
  • Fairtrade Premium for community investment in essential infrastructure (healthcare, education, clean water)
  • Facilitates access to export markets
  • Access to training and capacity building
  • Environmentally friendly and long-term sustainable practices

The Pi Foundation, GIST Advisory and Trucost were commissioned by Fairtrade Foundation to quantify and value social and environmental externalities from cotton farming in India. The boundaries of the analysis were defined through a scoping exercise undertaken with Fairtrade Foundation. Following this scoping phase, the following social externalities were identified for inclusion in the study: community benefits from Fairtrade premium, benefits from fairer wages, income benefits for farmers, social cost of child labour and social cost of overtime. Environmental externalities included in the study were: GHG emissions, water use, soil pollution, water pollution and land use. 

Two types of farming systems were compared: Fairtrade cotton farming and conventional cotton farming. 
The data used to calculate the results was a combination of primary sources and secondary sources. Primary data sources were provided by the Pi Foundation through surveys completed on the cotton farms. Secondary data sources were identified through a literature review and used to fill the data gaps.