NETZWERK FAIRE MODE partner Jana Kern (kernkommunikation) talked to Simon Ferrigno about the current developments in the organic cotton sector. Also see Jana’s recent article “Crisis for Organic Cotton?” in the Newsletter of the Texpertise Newsletter “Sustainability & Textiles” 2/2012.
„The situation is not necessarily negative“
Uncertainty is widespread in the cotton market: Textile Exchange published organic cotton production figures. The current Farm & Fiber Report shows a drastic decrease. Jana Kern talked to consultant and cotton expert, Simon Ferrigno, about the current developments of the organic cotton sector and about his predictions for the future of the eco fashion market.
According to the report the world production of organic cotton fell by 35 %. The greatest decline has occurred in India where almost 70% of organic cotton grows. How could this happen?
Simon Ferrigno: The decline in India has been significant but this may reflect a readjustment following speculation, over-reporting of figures and some spurious numbers based on possible fraud or poor practice. In other words, this may be a welcome development as these rumours have been damaging the sector for some time. The impact of the introduction of the Tracenet in India by the APEDA agency is beginning to have an impact, fulfilling its goal of stopping export of ‘spurious’ product. There is also decline in demand and reduced production because producers still do not clear and timely commitments from buyers. Other countries are maintaining their production so it is clear that much of the problem is indeed focussed more on India, although the claims for increase in the report do not always reflect back that in some cases the increases are back to the levels of a few years ago, as there has been volatility in the market for some time and the problems in India of artificially low organic prices and over-reported production had badly hurt some producer groups in places such as West Africa and Turkey.
What does that development mean to the eco fashion sector?
The situation is not necessarily negative – it represents an opportunity for organic cotton to rebuild itself on more solid foundations based on the serious and committed long established producer groups in both India and around the world; the industry needs responsible trading and sourcing guidelines and behaviours that are monitored and if necessary enforced, something I have been calling for for several years.
This includes addressing prices and the real costs of producing sustainably, which cannot be done at the same price as conventional cotton. Indeed, McKinsey, the consultancy, have put a figure on the negative external costs of cotton which if reflected would make organic cotton not more expensive but more affordable if these costs were included in cotton prices. But the organic cotton sector needs to face up to its responsibilities as it is being challenged in the market by Fairtrade and even more so by Better Cotton and Cotton Made in Africa, all of which address price, labour and trading issues.
Is the market destabilized?
The market has been unstable for several of the past 7 or 8 years as demand is often unclear and short term with last minute orders, little structure, a lot of price volatility and some price speculation. The sector has grown too fast with too little thought to structure or planning or long term approaches to price, contracts and planning of production to farmers. It takes 2-3 years for farmers to convert and 7-8 years for small farmers to build the right production and support system, yet most brands do not communicate orders in advance and few set up long term supply arrangements with producer groups. The organic cotton sector has been treated more and more like the conventional supply system despite its very different needs.
What are the effects on the supply situation?
The supply situation will be tight in the short term but in the market, at least here in the UK, organic continues to grow among small and medium sized brands while there are declines for some larger brands, partly driven by a move towards Better Cotton, so things will not be too bad.
How do cotton organizations react?
There is concern among organisations that organic cotton has had too high a profile in recent years but even more that organic cotton has been campaigning negatively against other cottons and not working constructively enough. Some of them are thus taking a certain delight in these figures but on the other hand, the door is open for cotton as an industry to work collaboratively to promote sustainability and continue progress. For many traders, organic cotton remains an option as long as there is demand but for all working at the fibre level there is a need for industry promoters of organic to work to improve the trading environment, which needs more stable conditions and an ability for producers, ginners and traders to be able to earn a living and plan more for the long term.
How do the big companies like Marks & Spencer, Walmart, C&A, H&M operate?
For cotton companies with a relatively high use of cotton in their products, organic cotton remains a strategic choice and commitment. Nowadays, they are adding other options such as Fairtrade, Better Cotton and CmiA to try and reach 50-100% levels of sustainable cotton use. However, some retailers are switching more to Better Cotton and dropping organic, and this usually reflects brands with lower retail prices and higher use of synthetic fibres.
How is the price development for organic cotton right now and how might it be in future?
Prices for organic cotton remain quite volatile reflecting both the movements in conventional cotton but also the fact that many producers do not have long term contracts and so charge what they can. I have seen some lower prices for those producers in long term business relationships, who prefer the stability of this rather than short term gain, as they know they will be protected should prices fall but this is not the norm. Generally, organic cotton currently sells for the same or 10-20% more than conventional when sold as lint, although there are a few cases when it sells for less in India than some premium cotton.
Will alternative sustainable cotton or sustainable fibres in general be more important in future?
Definitely, sustainable cotton sourcing is part of the strategy of many large international brands and it is hard to see this trend reversing even if growth may fluctuate slightly according to global economic conditions.
How are the future scopes for the eco textile market in your opinion?
The cotton sector at fibre level has seen dramatic reductions in the use of pesticides and insecticides, as well as the growth of sustainable cotton initiatives, beginning with organic but now including Fairtrade, Cotton Made in Africa, Better Cotton Initiative, Sustainable Cotton Project as well as brand specific initiatives by people like C&A. The sustainability question is important to sector survival: water, land and energy are now scarce resources, so making as much or more from less and ensuring that the productive base is secured for the future are economic imperatives.
Simon Ferrigno is the owner oft he consultancy „Sustainable & Organic Farm Systems“ in Derbyshire/UK. He is the author of “An Insider’s Guide to Cotton and Sustainability”, which he co-published with John Mowbray from British publishers MCL Global in March. The publishing of the guide was supported by the Aid by Trade Foundation, GOTS and Cotton Inc. In his guide Ferrigno looks at cotton and sustainability including all the certified options such as organic and Better Cotton.
Today I came across the Bloomberg story „Victoria’s Secret Revealed in African Child Labor“ by Cam Simpson, who stayed in Burkina Faso for 6 weeks to report about child labour in cotton fields.
Here are some remarks regarding the article:
- The article stresses that cotton farmers in Africa work very hard. This is very true. However, the main focus of the article is to show that the 13-year-old girl Clarisse Kambire (which is supposed to be representative for many others) is exploited on Fair Trade (FT) / organic cotton fields. It also connects the underwear giant Victoria’s Secret to the FT/organic cotton fields on which Clarisse works. This might not yet be a scandal, because when you look for child labour, you always find it. What I found more scandalous was that my questions/comments on the Victoria’s Secret facebook site to comment on this article were immediately deleted. So how seriously does this company take CSR?
- When talking about child labour, the author refers to children below 18 working. I wonder why he does not differentiate this more strongly, since 18 is not the internationally set age for child labour. He also does not properly distinguish between hazardous and systematic child labour and normal family labour. In many places in Africa, children work on the fields (last week I worked on the fields with 15 years old children in Malawi) – but these children also go to school and are happy about their work.
- The article does not really answer the question, whether this is a single case or whether child labour is widely used in a systematic way. It indicates that there are also other children working, but we do not get much information to evaluate whether this is exploitative child labour. And it does not explain what FT/organic organizations do to prevent this in a systematic manner.
- The article causally connects child labour to be a result from organic/FT cotton – “lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has – perversely – created fresh incentives for exploitation”. The claim that child labour is endemic in the region is not new, as a 2008 study quoted in the article shows. However, the author reasons: the profits promised by organic/FT cash crops made farmers grow cotton (for which they required the hands of the children). So the authors claims that organic/FT makes more profits, and thus it leads to child labour …?! Making this causal connection seems pretty absurd. What, in Simpson’s eyes is better? Leave the region poor? He does not give any answer to how this – in his words “perverse” situation – can be treated better.
- One problem is surely that the farmers of the Fair Trade cooperative in the southwest seem to have either received little training on child labour or didn’t understand the message. Basically, the article claims that the message that FT/organic cotton should not involve child labour does not get through to the farmers. This is a serious matter. But the article does not say why this was not the case, which is very disappointing, considering that the author spent a long time in the country.
- I do not understand why the article mentions the hard work on cotton fields without mentioning with one single word the US subsidies that prevent African cotton farmers from getting a fair price for their cotton. In Simpson’s logic the stop of subsidies would also lead to child labour, so maybe this is why the US is promoting US cotton farmers … And maybe we should follow the money behind Bloomberg and see where it leads us to (at least the article sounds a lot like: Victoria’s Secret – buy US cotton!).
For the last 14 days, I was on some cotton fields in Malawi and didn’t have time to blog. Here are some news of these last days.
My favourite news is actually an ad – Patagonia’s excellent “buy less” ad in the NYT on November, 25th:
October / November 2011
3.10.2011: HBR Network Blog: Patagonia’s “Buy Less” Campaign May Lead to More Revenue: http://bit.ly/nwzA7M
26.11. BBC News: Who, What, Why: How could Reebok sell trainers for $1? http://bbc.in/tX5R3a
30.11.2011. Triple Pundit: Patagonia’s Black Friday Message: Don’t Buy This Jacket: http://bit.ly/te9YBD
1.12.2011: AP: Workers mass at Shanghai factory in latest unrest: http://bit.ly/s4NHfq
2.12.2011: Reuters: Hundreds strike at Singapore-owned plant in China: http://reut.rs/t2egb5
4.12.2011: The Observer: Revealed: true cost of the Christmas toys we buy from China’s factories: http://bit.ly/vVHmbV
6.12.2011: The Guardian Blog: We need a sustainability movement to make ‘green living’ the norm
6.12.2011: British High Commission New Delhi: New training scheme promises to bring benefits to both garment exporters and garment workers
6.12.2011: Ecotextiles: China ponders green manufacturing tax
8.12.2011: AFP: Hundreds strike in latest China labour protest
8.12.2011: China Daily: End begging for wages
11.12.2011: Handelsblatt: Puma will Produktion in Afrika ausbauen: http://bit.ly/ufsPMn
12.12.2011: China.org.cn: Strike continues at south China factory: http://bit.ly/sLEjuT
This is my second digest of interesting news, articles etc. within the last few weeks. Sorry that I don’t sum them up, but that would be too much. Read whatever sounds interesting.
By the way: Would you prefer to have this digest once a week, every second week or monthly? Thanks for your replies.
Newspapers & Journals
12/2011: The Atlantic: How Walmart Is Changing China. http://bit.ly/rZ8rZm
28.10. Ökotest: Kinderschlafanzüge Druckfehler: http://bit.ly/tQtf6m
13.11. The Guardian: Puma aiming to produce compostable trainers and T-shirts. German sportswear manufacturer working on designs for shoes and clothing that can be buried at the bottom of the garden: http://bit.ly/uHFjiQ
16.11. Handelsblatt: PPR-Luxus-Marken auf den Öko-Spuren von Puma: http://bit.ly/uHBtNh
16.11. Economic Times (India): GAP, Walmart, C&A, H&M warn their Indian suppliers against textile mills that involve child & bonded-labour: http://bit.ly/s2RqjZ
23.11. Manager Magazin: Nachhaltigkeit bei Adidas. “Schwachstellen gibt es immer”. Interview with H. Henke: http://bit.ly/vE4JUp
24.11. The Guardian: Howlers and omissions exposed in world of corporate social responsibility. Study points to slapdash fact- and figure-checking in companies http://bit.ly/ss3WJT
1.11. Guardian Green Living Blog: Has campaigning for an ethical fashion industry had any impact? Progress might be slow, and a sweat-free high street is still a long way off, but it’s not all doom and gloom: http://bit.ly/vmXO6O
7.11. Textile Exchange Blog: If you want to address Climate Change make your cotton Organic: http://bit.ly/tNuNzw
11.11.: Peter Williams on ETI Blog: Certification is a blunt tool for implementing workers’ rights.: http://bit.ly/rJAXB2
23.11. Frau Jona&son Blog: Charle Vögele in Schwierigkeiten- Es ist Zeit für die Revolution! http://bit.ly/s4MvIT
16.11. GfK Studie: GfK Global Green Index – Wie grün ist der Verbraucher wirklich? http://bit.ly/tf4lEC
09.11. SustainAbililty: Signed, Sealed … Delivered? Behind Certification and Beyond Labels. http://bit.ly/uobkEm
Call for Papers
Call for Papers: Corporate Social Responsibility and Irresponsibility. Corporate Social Responsibility and Irresponsibility. Call for Papers for Journal of Business Research (JBR) special issue. Deadline: January 15, 2012. http://bit.ly/uHV4Go
Dezember 2011: »CSR – Gesellschaftliche Verantwortung im internationalen Dialog«. 15.&16.12. Berlin. http://bit.ly/rqKBgq
June 2012: 2012 EBEN Research Conference. Welcome to the website for the 2012 EBEN research conference. ‘Accountability, transparency, sustainability’. Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th June, 2012. Newcastle University Business School, England http://bit.ly/uYwdDQ
July 2012: Call for Conference Papers: The Changing Role of Business in Global Society. European Group of Organization Studies. EGOS Colloquium, Helsinki, Finland, July 5–7, 2012 http://bit.ly/uSHFWW
Oktober 2012: 5th International Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility. October 4-6, 2012. Berlin. http://www.csr-hu-berlin.org/5th-csr-conference/ (no CfP yet)
Burckhardt, Gisela (Ed.): Mythos CSR – Unternehmensverantwortung und Regulierungslücken. http://www.sauberekleidung.de/
Busch, Lawrence (2011). Standards. Recipes for reality. MIT Press, Cambridge. 390 Seiten.
Everyone is confronted with standards every day. Lawrence Busch, Professor at Michigan State University, argues that standards, shape not only the physical world around us but also our social lives and even our selves. Busch shows how standards are intimately connected to power–that they often serve to empower some and disempower others.
Busch recently conducted a research project on standards which aimed at:
- Developing a general theory of standards.
- Documenting the shift of governance from nation-states to various and diverse forms of private and private-public governance.
- Better linking standards to (a) ethics, and (b) democracy.