Dhaka, Sunday, 17 January 2021

Cotton cultivation: time to work on greening

Cotton cultivation: time to work on greening

Michael Arretz: There are huge opportunities for greening the cotton supply chain of the Bangladesh apparel industry. Bangladesh holds the top position when it comes to cotton imports. 1,361 Metric Tonnes (MTs) were imported in 2016-17. Vietnam imported 1,197 MTs and China 1,096 MTs. This shows how important cotton is for the apparel production in Bangladesh and its relevance for major buyers such as H&M, Primark, Li & Fung, Walmart, Aldi and Lidl.

In close cooperation with institutions and the factories, the buyers have ensured that great progress is being made with regard to the demands made by the Accord and Alliance. So much installation and conversion work has been carried out that the majority of the factories in Bangladesh have reached an international level, some of them even exceeding it considerably. The first programs are also starting in order to achieve greater efficiency with regard to the energy, water, packaging material and chemicals consumption. This also results in a lower consumption of resources per manufactured apparel.

But what about cotton, the raw material that is used to manufacture fashion and basic items? How is it made and where does this cotton come from?

When it became known that the cotton in Uzbekistan was harvested using intensive child labour, it was necessary to find other procurement markets for Bangladesh. Nowadays, India is the leading sourcing market of cotton imports with more than 40%, followed by Uzbekistan and West Africa with around 20% for Bangladesh. With a harvest of 5,879 metric tonnes, India is World Champion, with China and the USA coming in 2nd and 3rd. As is the case in these countries, India almost entirely relied on “genetic modified cotton” in its conventional cultivation. This results in higher yields on the one hand but on the other it resulted in heavy environmental burden, such as water and soil pollution and it also results in a debt spiral for small holder farmers. If the harvest does not come up to expectation new money has to be borrowed, without the old debts having been settled, the result is the committing of suicide by hundreds of farmers each year. More than 500 farmers were in this desperate situation last year.

This is where a project of Primark, the NGO SEWA and Cotton Connect in the Gujarat region, the largest cultivation area for cotton in India, makes its mark. Promotion programs and a targeted supporting of the women in the agricultural sector have resulted in water consumption being reduced by 10%, with the perceptual saving for fertilizers and pesticides even amounting to 40% each. Greening the cotton cultivation is therefore possible and that even with economic security. The female farmers incurred 20% lower costs and were able to increase their profits by almost double. It was to be heard from another project that the intensive cooperation with bulk buyers and training institutions result in more peace in everyday life. The worries become smaller and the successes become larger.

Programs that are aimed at improving the earning situation of farmers and at the same time, reducing environmental burdens are also in place elsewhere in India. One name here is that of C&A, that has been committing itself since 2005 having processed around 15,000 tonnes of organic cotton from Madhya Pradesh in 2016. The Swiss company REMEI is one of the pioneers having been involved in Maikaal since the 1990s. The “organic cotton” is mainly processed for coop in Switzerland.

But where can cotton be imported from otherwise, except from India alone, in order to be better prepared in the future? Matin Chowdhury from Malek Spinning Mills Ltd pointed to the USA, Australia and Africa. More could especially be imported from Africa with its 25 countries where cultivation takes place. It is already the case that more than 0.300 MTs are being imported from Africa nowadays. African cotton normally has a good fibre quality and it is also in a better position when taking the following sustainability aspects into account. A lot of the work is carried out by small holder farmers in African countries. Cotton is cultivated in small areas here. Most of the areas are “rain fed“, i.e. without groundwater being used and the intensive manual care means that fewer pesticides are required. There is also no need for herbicides for the defoliation as no harvesting machines are used, as is the case in the large fields in the USA and Australia. Cotton cultivation is therefore more sustainable or greener in Africa than in the aforementioned countries where cultivation takes place. There are also initiatives such as “Cotton made in Africa”, that especially concerns itself with the cultivation of cotton. With targeted consultation and training, the use of fertilizers and pesticides are practiced and tips are provided for an improved cultivation. As is the case with the Remei, C&A and Primark projects in India, yields are also increased and earnings secured in the African countries. Other alternatives for more sustainable cotton would be the “Better Cotton Initiative” and “organic cotton cultivation”.

Therefore, if apparel producers in Bangladesh are giving thought to alternatives to Indian cotton and at the same time, wish to bring the standard of the fibres as close as possible to their high safety and sustainability standards in the factories, they should consider where more sustainable cotton cultivation takes place and from where the procurement is long lasting secured. After all, “greening” is the same here as it is there: the people feel better and in the end, they produce more happy products for more happy customers.

Hamburg, Nov 10, 2017