Over a decade ago, TRAID’s international development funding strategy evolved to exclusively support projects improving the socio-environmental impacts of clothes supply and production chains. It means that every part of our work – collecting, sorting, reusing, reselling, educating, and funding – draws on the power of second-hand as a transformative tool to produce and consume clothes differently, and to waste less.
TRAID’s first textile related project was based in the small West African country of Benin. It sought to help around 2,100 Beninese cotton farmers to stop using dangerous pesticides, to grow organic, to go through the three-year conversion process and gain certification, and vitally, to develop and document an evidence-based best practice model of a sustainable cotton value chain.
11 years on, TRAID continues to fund this project investing over £865,000 in its work to tangibly improve the health, incomes, and environment of thousands of small-holder Beninese cotton farmers. Remarkably, today, our funding is directly responsible for around 83.5% of organic cotton production in Benin.
Our partners, Pesticide Action Network UK and the Organisation Béninoise pour la Promotion de l’Agriculture Biologique (OBEPAB), and the cotton farmers who have taken the step to grow without using pesticides, were determined to prove that a measurable, sustainable, and profitable agricultural business model based on organic farming was possible. Today, this project’s astonishing and sustained successes include: –
- Supporting 5,393 cotton farmers to become certified organic with at least another 600 in conversion
- 1,069 new farmers converted production to organic in 2021 alone
- Increasing women’s participation with 1,920 now certified organic
- Proving that organic cotton farming can dramatically increase yields. These farmers have consistently produced yields 50 – 100% higher than when they used pesticides, and when compared to other farmers using chemical pesticides and fertilisers
- Increasing farmer incomes– around 65% higher net income per hectare of cotton produced – due to lower input costs (no chemical pesticides) and the organic premium paid for their cotton
- Producing new income streams and better food security by growing a range of organic food crops with their cotton including high value crops like shea and cashew nuts
- Developing a successful low-tech food spray to attract beneficial insects which is cheap and safely made at home using natural, easily accessible ingredients
- Sharing learning with other partners, most notably in Ethiopia with another PAN UK and TRAID funded project which has seen the first ever farmers certified for organic
TRAID’s funding support for sustainable cotton today
Since our first grant to PAN UK and OBEPAB in 2009, TRAID has committed over £2 Million to support and establish sustainable pesticide reduction and organic cotton models in Ethiopia, India, and Mali – from the continued expansion of organic cotton farming practices, to lobbying governments to support organic, to addressing issues such as the scarcity of non-GM cotton seed, a significant impediment to farmers wanting to grow organic.
And now? It’s an incredibly exciting time for the organic cotton, our project partners, and farmers. The recent Cotton Demand Insights Report by Textile Exchange anticipates an 84% increase in the demand for organic cotton by 2030. This high global demand for organic cotton in textile supply chains represents an exciting opportunity to accelerate the expansion of organic agricultural practices. For example, OBEPAB’s successes are attracting new interest and additional funding alongside TRAID’s to scale up its proven model and access new markets, and the Beninese government has never been so committed as now to mainstreaming organic cotton. This is most certainly a step in the right direction for the fashion industry.
The problem is that today, organic cotton accounts for a paltry 0.7% of the global market. We’re seeing sky rocketing demand, but supply is limited. The obvious answer is to expand organic cotton producers and production. A win for farmers, and a win for the environment.
Yet, high demand from retailers is not without risks for farmers if not handled carefully. We have already seen how the organic cotton projects TRAID funds require long-term investment; from the minimum three-year conversion of land to be chemical free to gain organic certification, to the training of farmers to transition successfully. These sorts of timescales do not sit comfortably with fashion retailers which usually insist on speed throughout its supply chains – including procuring raw materials like cotton.
To scale up organic cotton production, retailers must underpin its demands with guarantees and forms of security so farmers can plan and invest. Crucially, farmers need to be confident that after going through the hard work of conversion, the promised demands from brands and retailers for organic cotton will still be there when they gain certification. For example, retailers could and should include in-conversion cotton into brand sourcing strategies.
The latest phase of TRAID funded work in Benin to scale up an already established and flourishing organic cotton value chain will be an important and timely test bed for how farmers can securely access new markets that deliver the organic premium. It will also be the time to challenge retailers to match market demands with the long-term thinking and commitments needed for organic cotton production to move from niche into the mainstream – which unlike pesticide soaked ‘conventional’ cotton’, is exactly where it should be.