Talking Point: India and the cotton supply chain

Fairtrade cotton farming in India

Fairtrade cotton farming in India

Stephanie McIntosh had a career in supply chain development before founding Fou Furnishings, a certified Fairtrade and organic hotel linens supplier, and she published a thesis on developing organic cotton supply chains. Here she explains why it’s important for hoteliers to consider the people within their supply chains.

Cotton is a commodity which hotels procure in vast quantities, whether purchasing or renting linens, and the supply of cotton textiles impacts the lives of tens of millions employed in India's second industry after agriculture.

Supply chain relationships offer a key way for hoteliers to make a difference to the quality, sustainability, delivery and cost of hotel products, as well as the lives of those working in support of their supply chains. Many hoteliers do not have visibility and consequently control of working conditions further down the supply chain.

The cotton textile supply chain has been subject to well publicised and documented social issues, negatively impacting the reputation of international brands. Simultaneously, the environmental impacts of cotton growing and processing also directly link to the human story. The negative coverage has led some global companies to make changes to their supply chain models and management of supplier responsibility. Changes to traditional supply chain metrics include giving equal weighting to sustainability and social measures, to not only prevent problems before they arise but also to extend the supply chain model beyond compliance, to one that builds social, environmental, and economic value.

The cotton textile industry in India is one which can help sustain economic growth and improve the quality of life for millions involved. Hoteliers' choice of supply chain partners has a key influence on the sustainability of products and their social and environmental impacts. In Fairtrade Fortnight 2015, two well established Fairtrade and organic Indian cotton projects illustrate the huge positive and lasting impacts that supply chain changes can yield for those working in cotton. These projects are tackling this supply chain from the ground up; from cotton seed, to field to the final hotel product going to market. Cotton from the projects has supplied hotels and accommodation providers in the UK, Austria and Iceland.

The first project - based out of Adilabad in the state of Telungana - demonstrates the tangible and sustainable difference to the farming groups where the cotton is sourced. The project has brought environmental and social improvements to 70 surrounding villages. Social improvements include increased income levels through Fairtrade minimum price and premium, and improved health among cotton farmers through the avoidance of pesticides. Environmental improvements include the absence of soil erosion due to the introduction of multi-cropping. The multi-cropping process is introduced to improve food security which has the added benefit of improving soil health over the mono-crop culture of cotton.

The project also addresses two societal needs. Firstly, farmer suicide rate in the region is significantly lower as the project offers hope. Secondly, sustainability for the next generation through the provision of support and equipment to improve educational opportunities and experience, especially for girls. The drop-out rate from school after 5th Grade was previously very high due to the lack of functioning schools and travel distance to school. The textile company supporting the project provides financial intervention to 22 villages to ensure transport is no longer an issue. In addition, the school infrastructure, which lacked equipment and teachers, has been bolstered by additional teachers, benches, desks and teaching aids.

The second project highlights the pioneering work of one Indian company and how changes to the extended supply chain can offer a win-win for the farmers and their families, the environment and the end users: international brands. This organic farming project has helped to restore fertility to the soil in an area where the soil and water table were depleted, benefitting 16,000 farmers in six districts in Maharashtra and Odisha. The company driving the project buys a majority of the farmers' produce at a fair premium, then transports it from farm to market. This approach benefits the farmers directly, as logistical problems and intermediaries that cut into their profit are eliminated, as well as exposure to the volatility of the global cotton market. The company sells the cotton on to brands and textile companies in Vietnam, Germany and Canada, as well as the domestic market.

A focus on farmer product knowledge and education has also helped to promote the use of superior varieties of cotton which improves quality. These measures, combined with seeds grown in-house and natural pesticides, have helped cut input costs for farmers by up to 30 percent. A percentage of profits are also used for social welfare activities, from supporting women to set up micro-enterprises, to encouraging environmental improvements which in turn can support additional crops and income.

The Green House Hotel in Bournemouth uses responsibly sourced cotton linen.

The Green House Hotel in Bournemouth uses responsibly sourced cotton linen.

Incorporating Fairtrade organic cotton products into the hotel supply chain meets the needs of guests making an ethical choice. Sourcing from proven hotel suppliers, certified to Fairtrade or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), ensures a sustainable supply chain which is economically viable, socially just and environmentally sound for all partners involved, and at all stages of the supply chain.

As Green Hotelier has highlighted before, sourcing cotton responsibly can be a challenge.Stephanie’s company Fou Furnishings sources its cotton from both of the projects mentioned above. Hoteliers keen to source their cotton responsibly can use this resource from Fairtrade International. Hoteliers can also learn more about sourcing responsible and sustainable cotton from these case studies.

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