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Supply Chain
Organic Cotton Industry Still Sowing Seeds for Sustainability

As consumer demand for organic cotton soars, so does skepticism over the sustainability of the sector. The response must not be to retreat from organic cotton, but to invest more in supporting farmers to help them make the often-difficult conversion to organic on the ground.

From jumpers to joggers, consumer demand for organic cotton is soaring. Accompanying this appetite is growing scepticism — with a recent article in the New York Times calling out the industry for issues such as gaps in the certification system and injustice in the process of paying farmers. Consumers are right to ask the tough questions and seek reassurance that their purchases are making a positive impact, yet these challenges are not new. In fact, overcoming obstacles in the organic cotton sector is the very reason why organisations such as the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) exist.

The response must not be to retreat from organic cotton, but to invest more in supporting farmers to help them make the often-difficult conversion to organic on the ground.

To enable this, we need to accelerate systematic change. Efforts by leading clothing brands should go well beyond simply meeting certification standards. It’s by no means easy; but through investment in farmers, seed, research and traceability innovations, we can create the conditions for a sustainable and ethical organic cotton sector. Putting farmers first not only advances brands’ corporate sustainability goals, but also gives consumers the transparency and reassurance they’re looking for. By doing so, we can deliver a thriving organic cotton sector where everyone benefits.

Greater profits for farmers, better system for all

Research shows that, under the right conditions, organic farming has the power to increase farmers’ income and transform their lives. Since OCA launched its Farm Programme in 2017, our organic cotton farmers have recorded annual average incomes between 2-21 percent higher than their conventional counterparts. Crucially, while generating these enhanced incomes, farmers aren’t risking their and their families’ health through exposure to harmful chemicals.

Farmer profitability is achieved when we provide farmers with a commitment from brands early in the season to buy their organic cotton and pay a premium. Without these conditions, the business case for organic farming is more difficult to make in areas such as India. Brands including Patagonia and BESTSELLER are taking the lead — and through our Farm Programme have already formed direct relationships with farmers and committed to sourcing organic cotton with them at better prices over the past years.

It’s not just the farmers who benefit from a healthy organic industry. Through eliminating synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, farming organically reduces harmful greenhouse gases, and restores and preserves biodiversity and healthy soils. A thriving organic cotton sector ultimately helps fashion brands achieve their social and environmental goals — a critical advantage as we face the climate crisis.

So, how can the sector unleash organic cotton’s potential?

For brands to contribute to a flourishing and transparent organic cotton sector, it’s vital that they go above and beyond certificates, and seek visibility into their supply chains — end to end. It’s up to each brand to ensure they are investing in farmers, so they can reap the rewards that incentivise them to keep going. Brands and retailers should work to provide long-term commitments to procure from farmers, pay better prices and invest in services that support farmers. From my own experience, it’s evident that building a better business case for farmers helps the entire sector prosper.

A crucial ingredient to successful organic farming is providing access to non-genetically modified (GM) seeds, as this helps to ensure integrity from the start. Supporting and training farmers is also necessary as they adopt organic principles. Our brands know that we work with local partners on the ground who show farmers strategies for pest and disease management, soil management, and practices such as border cropping to minimise the risk of GM presence.

Testing is also important to ensure organic practices are being followed and to help prevent GM-contaminated produce entering the chain. Organic isn’t a claim of absolute freedom from GMs; it means that GMs are not deliberately or knowingly used, and producers do all they can to avoid their presence.

OCA’s Farm Programme follows a thorough process to reduce contamination, which starts with providing farmers with non-GM seed prior to sowing. The cotton itself is also independently tested at three stages — seed, farm and gin — by third-party labs for GM elements. OCA has worked in partnership with GOTS and Textile Exchange to establish a GM testing protocol, providing the organic cotton sector with an essential tool for taking all reasonable precautions to prevent GM cotton in the supply chain.

Everyone has a role to play; and brands can lead the way

Consumers are right to demand transparency; and farmers are gaining awareness that organisations, such as ours, are out there to support them. Brands committed to the organic cotton sector must take action and invest in their supply chain. Giving up on organic cotton — as alluded to in the New York Times article — means giving up on empowering farmers, regenerative agriculture and sustainable supply chains. That’s not something we or our growing group of partners are prepared to do. The world needs all the players in the cotton ecosystem committed to organic now more than ever before.