We first met Cesar in a shopping centre called Larcomar, perched on the edge of the cliff in Peru’s capital Lima. It’s an unlikely place to meet a farmer but, well, he suggested it. We wanted to know what was really going on with the Peruvian cotton industry after our visit to Gamarra, so finding Cesar’s name in a presentation hidden deep in the nethers of the internet was a real discovery. Cesar runs a co-operative in the north of Peru working with 300 farmers directly so he would have every answer we were looking for. And when he responded to our email saying he was going to be in Lima we quickly became two over-excited school children.
At this point we were nothing more than chancers really, outsiders to the fashion industry and with a recently acquired immature understanding of how global supply chains worked. We were totally prepared to meet wise farmers, experts in their field who would see us for the charlatans we were – we just hoped they would hear us out. They were wise and had years of expertise. But thankfully they were also kind and open-minded to discuss potential opportunities to work together. After two rounds of mojito mocktails (a first for us all), we felt like we had just met up with old friends, not new acquaintances, with lots of laughs shared between hearing the struggles they face.
What we learned is that the cotton industry in Peru is dying out. Cotton production in Peru has declined by 90% since 1960, exacerbated in recent years by fast fashion and the relentless drive of brands for cheaper, faster, poorer quality clothing.
Whilst fast fashion is wreaking havoc on the environment in terms of carbon emissions, pesticide and chemical impact, water usage and the huge volumes of textile waste, we learned from Cesar what exactly makes Peruvian Pima cotton such a special crop that overcomes a lot of these issues.
Cesar told us that, with cotton prices unstable and demand fluctuating, many farmers are forced to abandon cotton (often a family trade for centuries) and grow more pesticide-heavy crops or are forced to travel to the cities in search of work. Illegal mining and deforestation is a real problem in Peru too. It’s having a real impact on cotton farmers and rural communities there. Globally, farmers comprise the majority of the world’s poor. Many of them are powerless, marginalized and vulnerable, up against a global system of trade, consumerism and capitalism that doesn’t really care about them.
But seriously, when we learned about Peruvian Pima cotton we just couldn’t believe that something so special could be left to die out.
Oli and I set up NINA, a baby clothes company, to support Peruvian farmers and to promote Peruvian Pima cotton as the most sustainable cotton and something all brands should be using as one of their sustainable textiles. Meeting Cesar was a really pivotal moment for everything that followed with NINA. It’s not yet practical to work with Cesar and his cooperative - we decided early on that if we can make the costs work we should only produce organic cotton clothes and making this transition to organic cotton is going to take a good few years for Cesar’s cotton farmers. But we’re still in touch with them over WhatsApp (pretty gutted not to see them this month over some more mojito mocktails - thanks corona) and we’ve no doubt that we will find a way to work together in the future.