For millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries, cotton is an important way of making a living. But it is a living that can inadvertently create a greater cost.
Cotton is one of the most widely grown products in the world, covering about 2.5 percent of the earth’s farmable land. More than 90 percent of cotton farmers live in developing countries on farms of less than 2 hectares. Through lack of grower knowledge, many of these farms unintentionally endanger human health, soil fertility and the availability of clean water. In some cases, there are also socio-economic issues: forced and child labor, onerous working conditions for women, and debt from high interest rates, input prices and more.
Since 2005, we at the nonprofit Better Cotton Initiative have worked to reduce the damaging human and environmental effects of global cotton production. We have developed a set of production principles for growing cotton, and the cotton verifiably grown according to these principles is called “Better Cotton.” We currently focus on Brazil, India, Pakistan and West and Central Africa – some of the world’s leading cotton-producing countries – providing training, tools and guidelines that enable the growth of a crop that creates positive results for the environment and the people who produce it.
The result is often, literally, a better product; better because it contains less contamination and has used less water and fewer inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Fewer inputs also lead to financial advantages: In numerous cases where the program has been implemented, farmers have seen increased profit margins when growing the Better Cotton crop. Additionally, reduced exposure to farming chemicals has resulted in fewer reported health issues – such as skin allergies, eye irritations and headaches – among field workers.
In addition to caring for the supply side, we partner with brands and retailers to cultivate demand for the crop. Our partner initiative – the Better Cotton Fast Track program – aims to accelerate the development of Better Cotton globally. Essentially a fund-matching program, Better Cotton Fast Track investments directly support the training and development of BCI farmers.
ASDA’s George brand has been a member of BCI for two years, and in January, that membership expanded to include Walmart U.S. home goods. Walmart also joined the Fast Track program. Through this fund, the Walmart Foundation finalized a grant for $650,000 for BCI farmer support as part of its sustainable agriculture and women’s empowerment initiatives. Additionally, Walmart is identifying ways to implement BCI projects in its supply chain, such as placing special emphasis on women’s development in cotton farming. Women not only make up the bulk of the workforce but also remain highly marginalized in the industry.
Organizations like Walmart are helping to create significant change. Not just through funding, but also through their commitment to purchase and promote a crop that is fundamentally more sustainable. And although we are only at the beginning of a long-term journey, we are already seeing the difference it can make. Muhammad Shafiq of Dara Jamal, Pakistan, is a farmer whose participation in the Better Cotton system has transformed the way he farms. He explained how, in the past, controlling pests with chemicals was a big expense. Now, after working with BCI and the World Wildlife Federation-Pakistan, he has learned about low-cost natural solutions that do the job as effectively. And Bintou Traore, the wife of a cotton grower in Mali, shared with us how her participation was having other positive effects, in addition to benefits like reducing pesticide use. In her region, the BCI implementation partner has initiated a literacy program in which two women from the local cotton growing cooperative are taking part.
Stories like these really give our work meaning. But there is always more to be done. Considering the hundreds of ways cotton touches the average individual – in bedding, in blue jeans, even in some currency – our continuing efforts are vital to ensure that cotton production becomes a virtuous cycle.