Can going green help pick the slavery out of cotton?
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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.
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".