Clothing industry finally gets to grips with cotton sustainability

Clothing industry leaders Marks and Spencer and Levi Strauss back plans for more sustainable cotton.

Last night (December 7) businesses and charities working in the traditionally chemical and water intensive industry showcased their improvements.

The businesses were talking for the first time in London of their support for the Better Cotton Initiative.

The drive, which began two years ago, aims to make sure cotton is grown sustainably and its farmers are paid a fair price.

Both Marks and Spencer and Levi Strauss admitted the clothing industry had been slow to deal with sustainable sourcing around cotton.

Marks & Spencer Sustainable Raw Materials Specialist, Mark Sumner, said the way cotton was grown by smallholders supplying independent dealers was part of the issue.

He said: "Cotton growing is a disparate industry, some elements of it don't want us to know, believe it or not, where and how they source our cotton.

"There's a number of reasons and we're trying to work with our suppliers to get them to understand why we need this information.

"Most are worried about the confidentiality of the data, they're happy to share it with us but not if it's passed on."

Levi Strauss vice-president, supply chain social and environmental sustainability, Michael Kobori, said: "We're trying to get the model right before we look to expand the venture.

"We need to make sure we're working in the right way before we commit to a scheme."

Better Cotton Initiative executive director, Lise Melvin, explained the water-intensive industry was changing its ways. She said: "Some of our most important work has been in optimising water use.

"Cottons crops are mostly irrigated and in the Punjab region of Pakistan production is 100% irrigated.

"We've worked with them to introduce drip irrigation so they're not wasting so much water, the work has led to a 40% reduction in water use."

Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK director, Kieth Tyrell, chemical costs and toxicity were still not understood by many farmers

He said: "Twenty years ago cotton was the single crop using the most chemicals and the most toxic of those chemicals.

"It's perhaps been replaced by fresh vegetables now, but cotton remains problematic as it is largely grown by small holder farmers.

"Guidance for these people is very sparse and is sometimes just government announcements over the radio telling them to spray their crops.

"We've also seen in Africa area's where cotton farmers are 'tongue testing' their pesticides, this means they're tasting the chemicals to check the strength before spraying.

"So we need to help them move from a chemical intensive industry to a knowledge intensive industry."

Mr Tyrell explained that through working with farmers in India they'd been able to achieve two thirds reduction in pesticides use and cut it by about a third in similar work in Pakistan. He added: "The main thing is that pesticides are so bloody expensive, often 60% of a farmer's income goes on them."

Luke Walsh


pesticides | supply chain


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