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Can going green help pick the slavery out of cotton?

Some farmers said they'd used different kinds of pesticides, but none of them worked. Picture: Khaled Elfiqi

Some farmers said they'd used different kinds of pesticides, but none of them worked. Picture: Khaled Elfiqi

Published Feb 11, 2017


India -

Wearing thick gloves and a shawl wrapped around her face,

Kanchen Kanjarya is busily picking cotton in the midday sun on

her small farm in Mayapur in India's western state of Gujarat.

Kanjarya, 42, works up to eight hours a day on the six acre

plot, one of millions of small holder farms in India supplying

cotton to garment factories making clothes for Western brands.

But while the days are long and the heat can hit 35 degrees

Celsius, Kanjarya is delighted to be among a small but

rising number of farmers being trained to grow sustainable

cotton that can cut water and chemical use and improve profits.

With the global cotton industry under scrutiny for using

forced and child labour and polluting the environment, more

Western companies are starting to work with farmers to clean up

fashion's leading natural fibre - and its complex supply chain.

"With the extra money we can invest in our children's

education, buy equipment, and repair our homes," Kanjarya told

the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside her house in the small,

dusty village of Mayapur, showing off her new toilet and shower.

"I have bought a tractor and also a motorbike for my son to

get to his job. Two of my three daughters are teachers. This is

good for the whole family and my children now have a future."

Kanjarya is one of 1,250 women farmers in Gujarat, India's

biggest cotton and cottonseed producing state, taking part in

one of a number of small initiatives led by companies to combat

environmental problems and break the cycle of child labour.

For the past three years these women farmers have had

classes and infield training twice a month in sustainable

farming methods such as water efficiency, natural pesticides,

and soil health, designed to increase cotton yields and income.

The pilot, by social enterprise CottonConnect, India's Self

Employed Women's Association and funded by UK budget retailer

Primark, has pushed up profits more than two-fold and is

expanding to 10 000 farmers over six years, its founders say.

Local sourcing

Elsewhere in India the C&A Foundation, affiliated with

global retailer C&A (and in a partnership with the Thomson

Reuters Foundation on trafficking), is working with various

groups to help 25 000 farmers move to organic cotton.

And the non-profit Better Cotton Initiative, set up in 2005,

has nearly 1,000 members including retailers like IKEA, H&M,

Burberry and Adidas, committed to fair work practices in cotton

and regulated use of land, chemicals and water.

"We are seeing an increasing trend for companies to get

involved in cotton production," said Alison Ward, chief

executive at CottonConnect which was set up in 2009 to work

directly with farmers to address social and economic issues.

Read also:  Bed sheet scandal roils the cotton industry

"The world is changing and it is starting to be far more

about local sourcing but getting to the middle of the supply

chain is a real challenge," she said.

Ward said only 10-12 percent of cotton globally is

sustainable and it will take time, effort and investment to

shift to farming methods that could boost profits and combat

labour abuses in the crop historically plagued by slavery.

Industry experts say the cotton supply chain is the hardest

to crack as the journey from field to store involves so many

stages - from seed production, to cotton growing, to gins to

separate seeds and fibre, spinning mills to garment factories.

The global cotton industry is also massive, estimated to

support about 250 million people in about 85 nations, many poor,

with an estimated four million cotton farmers in India.

A US Department of Labor report in 2016 said forced labour

in cotton had been documented in eight countries - with

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan widely condemned for state-sponsored

forced labour - and child labour in 17 nations, including India.

India, the world's second largest cotton producer after

China and ahead of the United States and Pakistan, is the only

country named for having child and forced labour in both

cottonseed production as well as cotton growing.

Indian group Glocal Research's 2014 study "Cotton's

Forgotten Children" found the number of children under 14

working on cottonseed farms doubled from 2010 to 200,000 with

small hands useful in cross pollination to produce hybrid seeds.

Director Davuluri Venkateswarlu said new research to be

published this year showed the situation has not changed as more

small farmers in India take up the profitable crop.

This meant the continuing use of child labour, as a recently

enacted law allows children under 14 to work in a family

enterprise as long as they also attend school.

Long way to go

"In pockets of Gujarat and Rajasthan the situation has

deteriorated and the issue is what defines a family enterprise

and whether children registered for school do attend," said

Venkateswarlu, blasting state governments for not doing enough.

He said interventions by such groups as the Better Cotton

Initiative and CottonConnect involving companies were helping.

MC Karina, deputy rural labour commissioner for Gujarat,

was confident the industry in Gujarat was free of child labour

after a major drive to clean up cottonseed farms.

"We've been working on this concern for the last eight years

and are now sure that not a single child is working on the

cottonseed farms," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With the complexity and lack of transparency in the cotton

supply chain, international brands are getting more involved for

the sake of their reputation and to meet ethical commitments.

Katharine Stewart, Primark's ethical trade and environmental

sustainability director, said her company set out to find an

ethical and sustainable way to produce cotton at the same price

as conventional cotton. Organic and Fairtrade has a premium.

Primark, part of Associated British Foods, sells low-priced

clothes such as $5 T-shirts in 11 countries, and is constantly

under pressure to explain how it makes clothes so cheaply

without exploiting workers.

Stewart said the retailer, with a high volume, low cost

business model, ensured workers were well treated in supplier

factories and paid at least the minimum wage with regular and

surprise audits but wanted to dig further into the supply chain.

"We thought it would be easier to go bottom up when you are

talking about agricultural production and then work from both

ends of the supply chain to join it all together," she said.

She said the Gujarat pilot proved sustainable cotton could

be produced at the same price as conventional cotton but Primark

would not give figures for the "significant" amount invested.

"We are looking and trying to do something about cotton and

people are watching closely what we are doing," said Stewart.

"But you have to pick where you are going to prioritise. You

can't do it all at once."

Patricia Jurewicz, director of the Responsible Sourcing

Network and creator of initiative Yarn Ethically and Sustainably

Sourced (YESS) working in spinning mills, said the cotton supply

chain remained tainted despite initiatives to clean it up.

"There are improvements little by little and the most where

brands get involved in production as they don't want to be

linked to abuse," she said. "But there's a long way to go".


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