24 April, 2014

From the cotton field upwards: recognising accountability in the fashion industry

by dwebb

GS Rao is the State Co-ordinator for Chetna Organic for their farmers in the state of Odisha, in the east of India. He represents more than 3,000 smallholder tribal farmers, belonging to 4 organic and Fairtrade cotton farmer cooperatives in Odisha, one of the poorest states in India. Here, he describes why Fashion Revolution Day is a trigger for a more harmonious supply chain.

Chetna Organic works with small and marginal farmers towards improving their livelihood options and making farming a sustainable and profitable occupation. Chetna Organic works with farmers from the rain-fed regions of Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh covering around 35000 acres. From 234 farmer members in 2004 to around 15,300 in 2014, Chetna’s strength has been collective action towards making the supply chain fairer. 

I have worked with cotton farmers since 2007, visiting farms every day and setting up cooperative meetings, and have seen for myself the difficulties faced by cotton farmers – those at the very beginning of the supply chain. 

A rising cost of production, fluctuating market prices for cotton and decreasing yields are just some of the things cotton farmers face daily. There is an inability to compete in global markets that reflect artificially low prices, due to the fact that western countries, particularly the US, offer large subsidies to their cotton farmers.  

The incessant use of chemicals, and pests that are increasingly resistant to chemical dosage, means a deterioration of the quality and productivity of soil as a natural resource. In addition, this also leads to the deterioration in genetic purity of cotton varieties and hybrid seeds. Extreme vagaries in weather conditions and climate, for example delayed monsoons, or dry spells and floods in the same seasons, can also have a huge impact on farmers’ livelihoods, with food insecurity and food price inflation added to all of these issues. 

Fairtrade helps, not only with prices or premium, but with training and standards which help farmers take care of their environment.

cotton plantCotton farmers must battle with extreme weather, pests and diseases to their crop

However, there is a sting in the tail. Over the past three years, Chetna has not been able to sell more than 20 per cent of entire Organic and Fairtrade cotton production on Fairtrade terms. In order to increase this figure, and the benefits to farmers in Odisha, there needs to be more demand from the UK for Fairtrade cotton, where brands and retailers are committed to transparency and paying a better price to producers. 

More efforts should be made by policy makers, business and all the players involved in supply chain management to promote the concept of ethical trading. 

We need to get the correct information to consumers to empower them to make the right decisions. We would like to tell consumers there is a footprint that each garment leaves and it is important to find out what this footprint is. Buying a fairly traded garment is not giving to charity, but is much more positive statement of fulfilling ones commitment towards all the people who are ultimately responsible for the garment.

Fairtrade has helped Chetna to lay additional focus on setting up farmers’ institutions and building their capacities on leadership and self-sustainability. Other certifications do not focus on building producers’ institutions and yet, this is the key to long-term sustainability. With setting up of farmers’ institutions, involvement of women has also slowly started to increase, though there is still a long way to go.

It is not that the fashion industry is unaware of the issues in the garment supply chains (especially in countries like Bangladesh). But it is high time the fashion industry acknowledges, and acts upon, its social accountability and moves from a CSR mandate to more Corporate Ethical Practice.

The basic needs of cotton producers and workers must be addressed as a top priority. We consider that the fashion industry should (i) increase the percentage share of ‘classics’ in its business model for long-term sustainability and (ii) make efforts to get closer to cotton farmers/farm workers through field visits and demanding payment traceability. This would ensure not only better quality produce and hence better business, but also a more harmonious supply chain.”

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