WWF and IKEA prepare for sustainable cotton production beyond projects
Eight years into the cotton partnership, and with some very impressive results to show for it, WWF and IKEA want to support sustainable cotton production beyond the joint projects on the ground in India and Pakistan. The goal is to help transform the global cotton market and make Better Cotton an affordable, mainstream commodity that is better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.
"When we first started the projects, neither IKEA nor WWF really knew what needed to be done to tackle the challenges with cotton farming. The first phase was experimental, with lots of innovation. We have learned a lot and achieved a lot," says Murli Dhar, Associate Director Sustainable Agriculture Program WWF India.
When the partners agreed to start joint cotton projects in 2005, WWF had been concerned about water-related issues in South Asia’s cotton-growing regions for some years, and IKEA had unearthed worrying facts about cotton’s impact on people and the environment when mapping its cotton supply chain in 2004. Something had to be done to make conventional cotton more sustainable.
"Some people suggested IKEA should abandon cotton altogether and some said we should move our sourcing to "safe" countries like the US. But IKEA has the financial power and are big enough to change things, so instead we decided to work with WWF and do something about the problem," says Guido Verijke, who was part of setting up the joint projects when he was Deputy Business Area Manager Textiles at IKEA of Sweden.
Founding members of the BCI
WWF brought together a range of concerned stakeholders - including IKEA - with a desire to work together to define a system for cotton production which would have less impact on people and on the environment. This was the start of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2004, but it would not be until 2009 before it had developed global principles and criteria for Better Cotton.
"WWF and IKEA were founding members of the BCI, but we wanted to speed things up. We started working with WWF in Pakistan first, thinking that if we can change things here, we can change it anywhere," Guido Verijke remembers, adding that the first project in India soon followed.
Small-scale start with big results
Farmers received hands-on field training in cultivation practices that meant cotton could be successfully grown with less chemical fertilisers and pesticides and less precious water. Arif Makhdum, Director Sustainable Agriculture Program WWF Pakistan, was on the ground from the start:
"We started with 500 farmers. In the beginning, they were not ready to listen to the environmental or social issues; they were only interested in saving money. But the results were very encouraging already after just one year so WWF and IKEA agreed to expand the projects."
The results inspired more and more farmers to join the projects in the two countries, and some 45,000 joint project farmers in India and Pakistan are now using more sustainable farming practices. In 2010, project farmers in Pakistan were the first in the world to produce licensed Better Cotton.
Building Better Cotton capacity
All IKEA funded cotton projects are now being adapted to be in line with the Better Cotton Initiative’s system for sustainable cotton cultivation.
"The WWF and IKEA projects have shown that the production of Better Cotton is possible, benefitting the environment and farmers. But we can’t be at farm level forever if we are to have a widespread impact. We need more local, permanent players to take on the implementing role," says Rebecca May, Cotton Partnership Coordinator at WWF.
Scaling up farmers’ capacity to produce Better Cotton is a prerequisite if it is to become a mainstream commodity and a real alternative to conventional cotton. This is why the joint project in Pakistan now helps establish and support producer organisations - with and for farmers - that in turn provide support to those who want to produce Better Cotton. In India, a national Knowledge Resource Centre is being established with support from the partnership so that it in turn can support numerous organisations who work with farmers.
Social issues more difficult
While it has proved relatively easy to demonstrate the benefits and motivate farmers to address cotton farming’s environmental challenges, social issues have proved more difficult to tackle. But farmers wanting to produce Better Cotton must show continuous improvements also when it comes to the BCI’s "decent work" criteria. They cover areas such as freedom of association, child labour, health and safety, and employment conditions.
"Implementing and maintaining the decent work criteria will be an ongoing challenge in South Asia and a long term approach is required. For instance the attendance of the farmers children in school is often linked to their financial situation and it will be important to continue to help improve the farmers financial position to secure that children go to school," says Pramit Chanda, IKEA Material Development Leader Textiles.
"Many people in the project areas are illiterate. They don’t have access to health facilities and sometimes not to any education. Household incomes are very low," says Arif Makhdum, adding that WWF is collaborating with various organisations and government bodies to support farmers’ ongoing improvements.
Results to be proud of
In a relatively short period of time, the joint cotton projects have contributed to substantial change and touched the lives of many thousands of people in South Asia.
"When you meet the farmers you really do believe that change is possible. Farmers have significantly reduced their use of chemicals, and spend less money on it. They see the benefits, and say that they suffer less from health problems. Farmers and labourers are getting better working conditions. Listening to their stories about being better off financially and being able to give their children a better education is fantastic!" says Rebecca May.
Hammad Naqi Khan, WWF’s Global Cotton Leader, Market Transformation Initiative says that the partnership has played a very important pioneering role, and that he is impressed with the commitment from IKEA:
"Many big companies give money to a cause and that’s it. IKEA set a good example by being directly involved in the field and learning everything about every step in the supply chain. Few companies bother to do that, but IKEA was willing to dig deep into the nitty gritty details of cotton."
"We could never have achieved this without the enthusiasm from the people who believed we could make a difference," says Guido Verijke.
Read more about the Better Cotton Initiative here
Back to newsletter