Textile Stories

January 2nd, 2019

Farmer, Cotton and Fashion: Toxic Trilogy

(First published in the Sustainability section of The Voice of Fashion in August 7,2018)

August 7, 2018

The journey of the T-shirt starts on the day when the farmer ploughs his land to grow the crop. It takes him around five to six months to cultivate cotton. Once the crop is harvested, the fibre goes through around 15 processes before it reaches the garment worker in a factory who makes the T-shirt. Isn’t it quite unbelievable that something that takes so much time to be produced, can be bought so cheap? So who is paying the biggest price for the massive hidden cost? It seems like it is the fashion industry’s unseen stakeholder—the farmer.

To create more awareness, farmers, international fashion brands and textile manufacturers came together at ‘Cotton Trailblazers’—a conference organised in May by C&A Foundation, the philanthropic arm of C&A (founded by brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer in 1841), one of Europe’s largest retailers with 2,300 stores in over 20 countries. The conference was held in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh government in Bhopal, where it highlighted the obvious negative impact of growing conventional cotton and benefits of switching to organic cotton. C&A Foundation was started in 2014 and has invested millions of euros to help over 30,000 farmers make the switch to organic cotton farming in India.

It costs an average Indian farmer more than ?20,000 per acre to grow genetically modified (GM) or conventional cotton. They often have to borrow loans from local money lenders to buy expensive farm inputs such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and GM seeds. Using chemical farm inputs causes soil erosion, a decrease in year-on-year yields, and impacts farmer health, leading to various diseases and medical expenses. In addition to this, cotton cultivation requires large amounts of water, which is why 65 percent of cotton in India is grown during monsoons. Lack of rainfall or irrigation means reduced production that adds to the economic stress. How many consumers are actually aware of this reality before they grab the cheap cotton T-shirt in a sale?

A large section of the Indian fashion industry itself chooses to remain largely ignorant about the fact that conventional cotton creates a negative impact for the environment and the farmer. Which is why 99 percent of fashion and textile produced is with conventional cotton. I often meet designers and brands who proudly declare how they use natural cotton to establish their sustainability statement. The interventions made by designers, brands and textile manufacturers under sustainability are largely focused on production processes related to the making of the garment.

To create more awareness, farmers, international fashion brands and textile manufacturers came together at ‘Cotton Trailblazers’—a conference organised in May by C&A Foundation, the philanthropic arm of C&A (founded by brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer in 1841), one of Europe’s largest retailers with 2,300 stores in over 20 countries. The conference was held in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh government in Bhopal, where it highlighted the obvious negative impact of growing conventional cotton and benefits of switching to organic cotton. C&A Foundation was started in 2014 and has invested millions of euros to help over 30,000 farmers make the switch to organic cotton farming in India.

Is organic cotton a solution for the farmer and the environment? Organic cotton needs naturally made fertilisers/pesticides and local/indigenous seeds that conserve and enrich the soil. According to C&A Foundation, it is up to 37 percent cheaper in terms of farm inputs costs. It also needs up-to 90 percent less fresh water and has 46 percent lesser carbon footprint (that means reduced global warming impact) compared to conventional cotton.

Having experienced such benefits, Shila Devi, a tribal farmer who owns a couple of acres of land and Dhansingh, a farmer who has 15 acres of land, both from Madhya Pradesh, are part of a community of 35,000 farmers who are creating an influential change in their communities to switch to organic. Dhansingh told me how organic farming has changed his fortunes and created a healthy environment for his family and farm. Most of the organic movement in Madhya Pradesh and other states such as Odisha and Gujarat is being done voluntarily without any government support.

Pioneering the organic movement, large brands and retailers like H&M, C&A and Zara are making strong commitments to grow the share of organic cotton by 2020. Closer home, niche startups such as No Nasties, Do You Speak Green and the latest entrant, Soul Space that has opened a store at Phoenix Market City, Pune, are also offering clothes made with Global Organic Textiles Standards (GOTS) certified organic cotton for everyday wear. GOTS is an industry recognised certification that guarantees the organic status of a garment or textile. But for real change to happen, larger Indian brands and retailers might need to understand why investment in organic cotton makes a business case for all stakeholders, and its positive social, environmental, and economic impact.

Campaigns that inspire customers to buy fashion made from organic cotton even when they cost more will in all likelihood prove to be an effective sustainable fashion strategy. Paying for organic cotton has to be projected as investing in the life and welfare of the farmer and for ecological goodness. If consumers can be informed and consistently updated on the choices they must make, it will be a new day for farmers too. After all, they too need access to education, training and right interventions for converting their land into organic farms, especially for the initial three years when yields can be a bit lower when compared to conventional cotton. NGOs such as Action for Social Advancement (ASA) are gradually training marginalised farmers towards this. But the industry needs to push with a stronger support. If demand is created, the farm sector will find it viable to convert and certify their lands to organic faster and in turn create enough supply.

Fashion is accountable to the farmer, the unsung hero. A small but far-reaching realisation that toxicity of fashion starts with its very basic fibre, cotton itself can work as a wakeup call. From policymakers to the manufacturing sector in terms of textile spinners and mills to brands/retailers and actual consumers, its time perhaps for an inclusive change across the industry. Fashion’s current romance with sustainability, having matured from an infatuation, can be established into a long-lasting relationship.


First published in the Sustainability section of The Voice of Fashion in August 7,2018




About Author


Gautam Vazirani is strategist and curator, Sustainable Fashion, IMG Reliance.