The clothes we are wearing right now, the towel we wipe ourselves with, the sheets we are sleeping on or the gauze we dab our wounds with: what are they made of, where are they coming from? At its rawest form how was it? Was it once growing on a worm or growing in a field? Was it resting on a sheep’s back or sloshing in an oil well? While we interact with textiles intimately every hour of the day, it is only recently that we have started reviewing the practices associated with extraction, processing, manufacturing and usage of textiles and its environmental impacts.
As per a report by Stockholm Resilience Centre on sustainable and resilient circular fashion and textiles industry, ‘the material resource use, production and sales of textile industry has exponentially increased in the last few decades – resulting in industry-related environmental and social impacts extending across the globe and creating intricate links and spill over’s between the textile industry, its multiple stakeholders and the natural world’ (Cornell et al., 2021). It’s evident that unless the industry takes steps to address its practices at war footing, its activities will continue to cause environmental harms, contribute to social challenges and be unsustainable.
Why is Sustainability important?
The textile value chain is a complex one of which fibre is the starting point. Polyester and Cotton are the most widely used synthetic and natural respectively, where cotton accounts for 24% of global fibre production, polyester and nylon account for 60% and the rest corresponds to other fibres such as silk, flax, wool and cellulosic fibres’ (Ornelas et al.,2020)
While production of polyester happens from fossil fuels in an energy intensive manner, releasing greenhouse gases, it requires only 0.1% of the necessary amount of water in comparison of what is required for growing cotton. Cotton on the other hand comes from renewable and natural sources; but its production is resource intensive as per figure below:
It involves intensive resource use, and extensive input use, causing water stress, soil contamination and degradation, overall biodiversity loss and health problems for farmers. Forced labour and child labour is rampant in Cotton industry & children are employed in a wide range of activities at meager wages to cut costs (Environmental Justice Foundation). However, as per a UN Report a single metric tone of cotton on average provides jobs for five people, often in world’s most impoverished regions; adding up to 100 million families across the globe. India is the largest producer of cotton, with an area of 12.20 million hectares under cotton cultivation (37% of world area under cotton cultivation). Due to this very wide reach from a smallholder farmer living in India to a chic boutique in Paris, it’s important to address Sustainability in Cotton Value Chain.
What does being Sustainability refers to in Cotton Value Chain?
As Sustainability is context-specific, thus for Cotton Value Chain, Sustainability would mean maximizing environmental quality, social equity and economic gains while striking a balance between the three.
It is imperative to engage in continuous, concerted efforts in reducing impact throughout every link in cotton’s long supply chain-from the farm practices like choice of seeds, integrated land management and integrated pest management to cotton processing and manufacturing practices adopted in finished goods production.
Key challenges related to sustainability in Cotton Value Chain
Since 1950’s, cotton production has increased threefold due to exponential demand, most of which has been met through extension of farm lands and intensification of inputs. Majority of production practices adopted have been unsustainable. While it is widely recognized and circulated both in industry, research and academics proper mechanisms to unravel the value chain are still not in place. Key challenges that we face today in cotton value chain are-
- Transparency from cotton field to the final product on the counter
- Adoption of traceability- and the ability to identify cotton and track where it originated
- Impact on water quantity and quality- ill managed production leading to over the value consumption of water, depletion of fresh water resources, eutrophication.
- Inappropriate (quantity and time of use) pesticide and fertilizer application impacting human health and biodiversity, increasing financial dependence on companies producing pesticides and other chemicals
- Soil contamination, depletion and loss of biodiversity above and below soil surface leading to loss of soils’ self regeneration capacity
- Land use pressures due to ever increasing demand on land for alternative uses requires adaptation
- Smallholder farmers low income, debt trap due and vulnerability due to cotton price volatility, uncertain market and high input cost
- High prevalence of Child labour and forced labour. According to UNICEF children work at all stages of supply chain in fashion industry from production of cotton seeds, harvesting cotton, spinning yarn to the different stages of putting garment together (Moulds J, The Guardian)
- Impacts of climate change with extreme weather conditions
- Toxicity of chemicals (dyestuff and additives) and unchecked use of formaldehyde and heavy metals
- Inefficiencies in post-harvest storage, transportation and spinning systems leading to wastage
Important Economic, Social and Environmental Disclosures
SEBI issued a circular on May 10, 2021 introducing the Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report (BRSR), as a mandatory practice by FY 2022-23. The new reporting format designed on the basis of nine principles stipulated in the “National Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct”, outlines mandatory ESG policies and requirements for the top 1000 listed companies by market capitalization. The demonstration of sustainability objectives, position, and performance is expected to help investors in making informed ESG-related decisions and aid in long term value creation (India Briefing, 2021). Globally the issue of sustainability is addressed at multiple levels, reflected in the increasing number of sustainability standards, certifications, and product labeling available.
Product standard is adherence to, conformance with a set of criteria for production by manufacturers and certification is a declaration by the standards’ owing organization/ its affiliates that the product or service conform to the approved/mandated guidelines of production. A certification label symbolizes that compliance with standards has been verified (Singh et al. 2013). Some key environmental labels are EU Ecolabel, GOTS, STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®. In terms of initiatives for growing cotton using sustainable principles, five initiatives stand out- Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), REEL Cotton programme, organic cotton, Fairtrade Cotton of which BCI dominates output in Sustainable cotton sector.
Two companies in India stand out for their concerted efforts to build trust, transparency, and accountability by adhering to compliance, disclosure and ethical business conduct. Welspun India Ltd (WIL) was embroiled in a controversy for supplying substandard material in place of premium Egyptian cotton to Target in year 2016. Welspun owned up its mistake & integrated measures like Wel-Trak- system for tracking its cotton products end to end. Recently it launched Wel-Trak 2.0 Blockchain, a next gen ESG data visibility technology, which will capture all sustainability related data points (ESG metrics like water usage, power usage, gender and fair pay). With ESG strategy called WELOCITY with Acceleration at its core, it’s also working on embedding circularity in every realm of its value chain.
Trident Group follows 5 R’s of responsible manufacturing to the core by reducing fuel usage to optimize emission, reusing water by treatment of effluents, recycling Waste Fibers’, re-engineering and redesigning by developing in-house technology for generating wealth from waste. With fully integrated process from power generation to yarn and fabric manufacturing under one roof it has powerful grip over production value chain. Trident has partnered with 17,498 farmers under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), to minimize pesticide usage in cotton cultivation practices, save water during irrigation, and upgrade farmer’s economic status. The company is also continuously engaging with community working on issues like education, healthcare, livelihood, de-addiction and women empowerment.
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Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Center for Research and Implementation of Sustainable Practices or the CRISP Global.
Aruna is a Master’s Student of Sustainable Development Practice at TERI School of Advanced Studies, and a practicing Textile Designer passionate about textiles, crafts and everything that sits at the intersection of design and social development.