Sustainable cotton: a need for investment

By Dave Armstrong - 26 Feb 2015 0:0:0 GMT
Sustainable cotton: a need for investment

There's an awful lot of cotton. Labour, or alternatively expensive automation is a huge burden for those Chinese farmers who remain. In all countries growing cotton, great numbers of migratory workers of all ages (and types) are employed for the harvest.Cotton fields image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Cotton has survived competition from synthetic fibres to remain as a challenging but viable crop for many nations, from Greece to the US. Sustainable cotton is the aim, but from the desert wilds of Central Asia to the great dams providing water in China, providing enough moisture has been and always will be a problem in the temperatures at which the crop grows. Here we preview a report by CottonConnect on the Chinese industry.

China is facing these socio-economic and environmental challenges together, in its farm communities. CottonConnect is one organisation that is aiding brand names to collaborate with their supply chains and even competitors to ensure greater sustainability. China is now the largest grower of cotton, with the top 6 being India, the US, Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan. The latter was heavily involved in unsustainable water use during the Soviet era, as the loss of flow in 2 rivers and drying up of the Aral Sea can confirm. Uzbekistan now joins the US in major export markets, along with specialist nations such as Egypt. Meanwhile, in China, the water table can only be reached by digging down 120m in some cases.

The interest in China's situation lies in many factors. Their farmers are ageing, investment is needed to support the reduction in pesticide as well as water use, while the rural workforce and cotton prices are by necessity, falling. The amazing fact is that up to 40% of those pesticides descending the major rivers are used in the cotton industry. The textile industry in China is also suffering from intense competition, so the price drop (to the lowest level for 6 years) of the cotton itself should help these manufacturers.

Challenges for both farmers and manufacturers of brand names are enormous. More than 2,600 litres (687 gallons) of water are needed to make a brand's T shirt, with even more wasted when irrigation is low-tech and not maintained. Fertilizers and pesticides should not be used prodigiously, but the cotton-growing soils in many countries, not only China, have been degraded beyond any normal or organic production of crops. Without education in careful management using the latest techniques, growers are likely to continue as best they can. Influx of these ideas and finance from international manufacturing companies may be the only green way forward.

The most obvious use by CottonConnect of manufacturing brand names would be in training, including that in profit and loss accounting, combined with supporting the use of micro-finance tools. Key to any sustainability are the newer ideas such as watershed management, mapping water footprints of individual farms and modifying community behaviour. For example, children can be trained vocationally, in career development and financial subjects while parents are away from them on frequent migratory cotton picking jobs. A well-known NGO takes responsibility for this particular innovation, which has to be a useful community improvement.

With Chinese planting of cotton foreseen to fall by 6% by this year, action is called for by the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC.) Loss of subsidies are probably the major cause, along with the ageing problem. Obviously, a switch to organic cotton, proposed by some for Xinjiang (in the NW), might prove attractive to brand names who want to display their unequivocal and total green-ness. Just to encourage them, we noted last year that CottonConnect have achieved a 30% reduction in water use by some smallholders.