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Cotton-ing on to sustainable clothing: M&S report from the field

 

WWF and Marks and Spencer (M&S) started working together on sustainable cotton in India in 2009, partnering to support farmers to develop ways of producing cotton that has a lower environmental impact. In short, a way of producing ‘better cotton’, under the Better Cotton Initiative, or BCI. In this Q and A blog, Phil Townsend – sustainable raw material specialist at M&S – talks to me about his recent visit to the cotton fields in Warangal, India, and tells of all the individuals and groups that go into making cotton, better!

Phil, why are M&S working on Cotton?

M&S is a large British retailer specialising in high quality food and fashion products and therefore cotton makes up a significant proportion of the raw materials that they use. In 2007 M&S launched M&S Plan A, which set out their strategy to protect the planet by sourcing responsibly, reducing waste and helping communities. Originally with 100 commitments to achieve in 5 years, it has evolved to Plan A 2020 with 100 new commitments including sourcing sustainable cotton under the Better Cotton Initiative, BCI.

Cotton is a hugely important material, making up nearly half of the fibre used to make clothes and other textile products globally and at the same time plays a major role in the economies and social welfare of developing countries. It provides a livelihood for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small-scale farmers. However, the environmental impacts are significant. It can take up to 2,700 litres of water to produce one conventional cotton t-shirt, which is the same as what an average person might drink over three years! It’s therefore very important that M&S play a key role in helping cotton to be produced in better ways.

Freshly picked cotton bolls from a cotton field. Image from: Marks and Spencer. Freshly picked cotton bolls from a cotton field. Image from: Marks and Spencer.

What were your expectations of the trip?

The aim of the WWF – M&S partnership is to produce cotton using less water, fewer chemicals and with a lower carbon footprint. The project involves working with over 18,500 farmers who have received BCI licences on over 20,000ha of cotton fields across nearly 250 villages. It was in 2010 that the first harvest of better cotton was produced and the project has gone from strength to strength.

This was my first trip to the project site and after working on it remotely for several years I was very eager to see it for myself and meet the many people involved! It was a chance for me to see one of the key areas that M&S sources its cotton from to make a wide range of the garments we sell.

Tell me what it was like in the field

One of the amazing things about this project is the number of different people involved in making it a success. There is the WWF team both in the UK who oversees the project and the team in India who focus in implementation and tracking progress. There’s the local partners like MARI (a leading NGO in India), that are there to help establish and strengthen farmer cooperatives and KVK (the Indian Council of Agricultural Research), the science and research centre who provide education and support to farmers to help improve their crop management. And, of course all the field facilitators, cooperatives and the farmers themselves without whom the project would not be possible. BCI works with all these key players at each stage in the cotton production chain and seeing how the BCI model had motivated all the different actors to deliver amazing results in the field, made the trip so worthwhile.

Phil Townsend from M&S is helping some local ladies to sort through the cotton bolls picked from the fields of Warangal. Image from: Phil Townsend, Warangal India, October 2015.Phil Townsend from M&S is helping some local ladies to sort through the cotton bolls picked from the fields of Warangal. Image from: Phil Townsend, Warangal India, October 2015.

What benefits have you seen from the project?

When you arrive at the project sites and speak to the farmers, the benefits that the project is having become very clear. Farmers told me of the Farmer telephone helpline that has been set up by KVK, one of the local partners, to deliver instant technical support to them for a whole range of queries including guidance on farm management practices. From this helpline a weekly newsletter is published to help others understand more about the most common questions asked. I saw various methods of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) including pheromone traps for boll worm, insect paper traps, refuge crops and others, all of which are more environmentally friendly alternatives to chemical pesticides. Importantly, most farmers in the project benefited from yield increases which have meant that their net income has increased both from more cotton crop and less expenditure on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A win-win for people and planet!

So, what next for the project and for M&S?

The project is moving towards final exit phase in 2017 but the lasting ambition of this partnership is to ensure the Better Cotton programme becomes self-sustaining by strengthening the Cooperative Societies formed through the project. It will also ensure responsibilities to comply with the Better Cotton Standard System are handed over responsibly. The skills and expertise of both WWF and M&S can help famers develop a strong sense of purposeful, impactful and successful business practices that are good for people and nature.

This project is a great example of different partners working towards a common goal to produce better cotton and this is why it is one of the most successful and impactful sustainable raw material stories. M&S originally committed to source 25% of their cotton sustainably by 2020 but with the enormous progress made in projects like this they have sourced 32% sustainable cotton this year and so have increased their target to 70%. Here goes!

Two local farmers involved in the project in a cotton field in Warangal. Photo from: Phil Townsend, Warangal India, October 2015. Two local farmers involved in the project in a cotton field in Warangal. Photo from: Phil Townsend, Warangal India, October 2015.

M&S is one of many retailers and brands that are on a journey to source more sustainable cotton. Find out where you can support Better Cotton by checking out which retailers and brands have joined BCI by visiting the Better Cotton Initiative website and look out for more on cotton from us later this year!

In the mean time, check out our Better Cotton Report PDF (1MB)

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