Despite a drop in the number of certified producer organizations, cotton is a growing category for Fairtrade, with sales of 8,125 MT in 2016 and 18 certified producer organizations. The scope for growth is significant given that only 11 percent of the world’s cotton is currently produced sustainably, and there is an increasing interest by the industry itself, as well as pressure from NGOs, to set high sustainable cotton sourcing commitments.
In order to take advantage of this favourable environment, Fairtrade is focusing efforts on engaging with cotton stakeholders, including businesses, NGOs and governments, to build awareness and support for Fairtrade certified cotton and address the most pressing issues affecting the sector. These include the lack of transparency and traceability in cotton supply chains.
Since 2014, manufacturers have been able to purchase Fairtrade cotton in bulk and mix it with other cotton and fibres as needed, in addition to sourcing and creating 100 percent Fairtrade cotton products. This concept, known as ‘mass balance’ and labelled under the Fairtrade Cotton Program, was launched to expand the uptake of Fairtrade cotton while providing all the benefits of increased Fairtrade sales to cotton farmers. There is strong interest in this model. By the end of 2016, we had seven sourcing commitments globally, and continued engagement with businesses that are keen to address the sustainability-related challenges in the cotton sector. We also introduced new and customized supply chain services that map and link commercial partners to support and guide them with the sourcing of Fairtrade cotton. We can also help them to identify suitable end product options with competitive advantage.
Fairtrade launched the Fairtrade Textile Standard in June 2016. This Standard, which is part of the broader Fairtrade Textile Programme, is designed to tackle the challenging working conditions of textile factories by extending the Fairtrade approach to the entire textile supply chain. By committing to Fairtrade, fashion and textile companies can help improve the social and economic well-being of workers across the entire production chain.
Based on Fairtrade’s existing Standard for Hired Labour, the Fairtrade Textile Standard focuses on working conditions, living wages and workers’ rights, and allows for other sustainable fibres as well as cotton according to Fairtrade’s Responsible Fibres criteria. It’s the first Standard of its kind to require living wages to be paid within a set time period – six years after certification – with brand owners also contractually responsible for fair and long-term purchasing practices that are essential for implementing wage increases. Overall, the Textile Standard aims to empower factory workers and enable them to negotiate labour conditions independently. Three German brands (3Freunde, Shirts For Life and Melawear) signed up as the first partners for Fairtrade Textile Standard and Programme in 2016.
In order to raise awareness about Fairtrade cotton and build more sustainable sourcing practices in the sector, Fairtrade actively participated at industry events and global conferences, such as the Textile Exchange and Innovation Forum Apparel conferences. Fairtrade collaborated with other cotton standards through the Cotton 2040 initiative convened by Forum for the Future. Fairtrade also partnered with Prince Charles’ Sustainability Unit on roundtables to engage with the industry to increase the uptake of sustainable cotton.
In addition, Fairtrade continues to engage with the German Textile Partnership, which was initiated by the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development. This Partnership is a multi-stakeholder initiative with about 150 members from the fields of business, politics and civil society. Together they are striving to improve the social and environmental conditions in the global textile production – from the production of raw materials for textile production to the disposal of textiles.
Political advocacy has been another important area of work to defend the interests of vulnerable cotton farmers and promote the take-up of Fairtrade cotton. To this end, Fairtrade engaged with industry experts to research and develop a position paper called ‘Power to West African cotton producers’. This mapped the challenges in the cotton sector in West Africa with a focus on small producers and put forward recommendations for the European Union, G7 and the governments of West African countries in support of fairer and more sustainable textile supply chains. Fairtrade also hosted a Cotton Forum in Paris in March 2016 focusing on advocacy and market access to improve the conditions of West African Fairtrade cotton producers. Representatives from the industry, commercial partners, supply chain and small producers all participated.
Top image: Fairtrade cotton farmer Kady throwing freshly picked cotton onto a heap in Sitaoulé Bananding, Senegal. Image © Sean Hawkey
 Fairtrade International Responsible Fibre Criteria, Available at: https://www.fairtrade.net/fileadmin/user_upload/content/2009/standards/documents/generic-standards/ResponsibleFibreCriteria.pdf
 ‘Cotton 2040 is a unique cross-industry partnership, bringing together leading international brands and retailers, cotton standards, existing industry initiatives and other stakeholders across the supply chain.’ Read more here: https://www.forumforthefuture.org/project/cotton-2040/overview
 Fairtrade Foundation (24 May 2017) ‘Sustainable Cotton Communique’. Available at: https://www.fairtrade.org.uk/Media-Centre/News/May-2017/Sustainable-Cotton-Communique
 Fair Trade Advocacy, ‘Power in West African Cotton Sector’. Available at: http://www.fairtrade-advocacy.org/power/180-projects/power-in-supply-chains-campaign/889-power-in-the-west-african-cotton-sector-2016