Let’s give cotton farmers the airtime they deserve
We squished into the car with Cesar and Genero, beaming after an unexpected breakfast at Cesar’s favourite spot. The usual avocado roll with a heap of butter and the not so usual café con leche which was really a leche con little bit of café. Tasted delicious though. We’re in the car, radio on, the feeling of being with old friends. Emily and I are sandwiched tightly together in the backseat as we eagerly listen to the commentary of every thing we passed. The Spanish, spoken at a quickfire pace, simply holds no prisoners. Oh, I haven’t even mentioned that we were in the batmobile, a car they had hired specially for the occasion with the batman symbol printed on the bonnet. That’s just how farmers roll round here in Catacaos.
The home of Peruvian Pima cotton. In Mochi, the language of a pre-Incan society, “Catac” means grain and “caos” means lush. Makes sense. Peruvian cotton is grown along the Pacific coastline as well as in the Amazon. But a lot of it is grown here in the northern Piura region. That day we met several pima cotton farmers who work with Cesar in his cooperative of about 300 farmers in the area.
Being a cotton farmer is not an easy job, especially when daytime temperatures can near on 40 degrees in Piura.
Peruvian Pima cotton farmers get paid very little, it’s unreliable and climate change is bringing new challenges. In March 2017 the Piura river broke its banks after a day of rain that was three times the amount they usually see in a year. In Catacoas flood waters were 5.9ft high, people died, a state of emergency was declared for 60 days, and cotton fields were destroyed along with farmers’ incomes.
Let’s give cotton farmers the airtime they deserve
Farmers are often poor, marginalised and powerless. Something that Emily and I felt all too keenly as we toured round the villages with Cesar. As the NGO Care International reports, most of the 1.4 billion people living on less than £1 a day live in rural areas and depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods. At NINA we know our cotton farmers. We guarantee a reliable and decent income for them. And it’s our goal to support others like Cesar and his farmers to transition to organic cotton farming.
Sustainable cotton farming is the future, especially when you consider the amount of water that goes into conventional cotton. Making sustainable cotton baby clothes requires lots of upfront planning, financial investment and patience – it takes 3-5 years to fully transition fields to organic as the soil needs to be rid of all the chemicals, the surrounding fields need to also be organic (especially difficult if the surrounding fields grow rice which is very chemical-intensive and when you’ve got lots of smallholder farmers each looking after their own patch, understandably). There are upfront costs and there are annual costs, simply to get and keep the GOTS accreditation, which is the universally recognised stamp for organic cotton. In some studies organic cotton is less than 1% of all global cotton production. Whether they grow organic or not, we need to give cotton farmers the airtime they deserve.
It’s enormously important that farmers receive a price for their cotton that they can actually live on.
As entrepreneurs, farmers don’t have the same minimum wages that you find in ethical factories. They’re faced with a price that’s set by global markets and one that’s influenced by things outside their control. One huge challenge - the Chinese and US governments give subsidies to their own farmers that bring the prices down for farmers elsewhere. It’s enormously important that farmers receive a price for their cotton that they can actually live on. That’s what we’re doing at NINA. And there’s a reason why we’re so focused on Peruvian Pima cotton. It is one of the more sustainable textiles and eco friendly clothing materials out there.
Working with cotton farmers is crucial at a time when we’re talking more and more about sustainability and ethics and supply chains that are fit for the future (so many are not even fit for today or yesterday). On 24 April 2013 the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed killing 1138 garment workers and injuring more than 2500. The victims were mostly young women. Two inspiring female pioneers Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers launched Fashion Revolution in the wake of this disaster. And since then people around the world have been relentlessly demanding of brands “who made my clothes?” This is fantastic, we fully support it, and without a doubt it gives us a burning positive energy every Copenhagen and London Fashion Week when the #whomademyclothes campaign spins into a frenzy. But we can’t forget about the cotton farmers. In the same way as garment workers, they are often subjected to poor working conditions, exposed to dangerous chemicals and receive poor pay.
Know your farmer, know your ethics
Global fashion supply chains, being as murky and opaque as they are, means that it is very easy for us to do just that. To forget about the cotton farmers. Or not even make the connection that this t-shirt I’ve just picked off the shelf started its life as a cotton seed that was grown and nurtured by cotton farmers. At best, it’s difficult to know if cotton farmers are getting a good deal or being fairly treated. At worst, human rights abuses go unnoticed, in supply chains where accountability is nebulous.
In last year’s Fashion Transparency Index it was reported that only 10 of the top 200 fashion brands knew their raw material suppliers. This was up from 0 in 2017 so I suppose there’s some good news here. 70 brands knew their first-tier manufacturers, up from 32 brands in 2017. 38 brands knew their processing facilities, compared to 14 in 2017. And this is a survey of brands we love and celebrate, who sell clothes and accessories we aspire to owning. Max Mara, Prada, Massimo Dutti, Dior, Kate Spade. Transparency = accountability = change. What’s also true is that we all want to know this sort of information. In a survey of over 5000 people across Europe, 80% said that fashion brands should disclose their manufacturers.
We’re all becoming more mindful and more demanding – our parents might roll their eyes at us but this is a very positive thing.