Brands driving economic boon for sustainable cotton in Africa

A growing focus on sustainable procurement from textile companies such as ASOS, Aldi and Jack & Jones has helped the largest label for sustainable cotton from Africa increase licensing revenues by 47% over the last 12 months.

The Cotton made in Africa initiative (CmiA) was established by the Aid by Trade Foundation in 2005 and currently accounts for 30% of certified cotton production in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2016, firms such as ASOS, Danish firm Jack & Jones, Kid Interior from Norway and Aldi Süd all joined the initiative, driving market demand as a result.

CmiA’s annual report for 2016 reveals that 30 textile companies purchased 50 million items of clothing that were marked with the CmiA label in 2016, as more than £1.3m was poured into the initiative to benefit African cotton farmers.

“Every T-shirt and every pair of jeans with the CmiA seal contributes towards combating poverty and thereby counteracting the causes of migration,” CmiA’s found Dr. Michael Otto said.

CmiA trains African smallholder farmers on sustainable growing methods, while also championing ethical working and living conditions. Around 780,000 farmers, 18% of which are female, benefitted from the initiative in 2016. When family members of the farmers are accounted for, CmiA reaches more than 6.7m people on the African continent.

The £1.3m licensing revenue is an increase of 47% compared to 2015, and the share of public financial aid of this figure stood at just 1%, meaning that private sector trade is driving the benefits for the farmers.

In total, 20 verification operations were carried out in 2016 to ensure compliance with CmiA standards. Independent audits were also carried out to ensure that training methods resulted in improvements to farming techniques and farmer livelihoods.

Projects carried out by CmiA include solar power projects for farmer training centres, water consumption awareness initiatives and women-focused programmes. The volume invested into these cooperation projects in 2016 reached more than £860,000. Each project was implemented using expertise from cotton companies and purchasers such as OTTO and C&A.

Trustees of CmiA’s administrator, the Aid by Trade Foundation, have suggested that UK retailers could introduce shorter value-chains that are more transparent and manageable by implementing enabling trade tariffs with Africa.

Managing directors from some of Africa’s emerging garment markets agree with Aid by Trade, and have urged the UK to strengthen ties with companies in Africa at the risk of losing a competitive edge to companies in the European Union (EU) and the US after Brexit.

Retail’s role

The influence of brands in promoting sustainable cotton has grown in recent months. Retailers including Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Target have teamed with Forum for the Future to convene a new cross-industry initiative, Cotton 2040, aimed at turning sustainable cotton into a mainstream commodity.

However, reports warn that an overwhelming majority of global companies using the highest volume of cotton internationally have “failed to deliver” on sourcing sustainably. In response, industry experts are calling on companies “serious about sustainability” to source 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020.

Earlier this month, Primark highlighted how serious it is taking its own sustainable cotton initiative. The retailer announced that a range of sixteen different women’s pyjamas had gone on sale, all of which are using cotton from the Sustainable Cotton Programme.

Matt Mace

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