Save the Date: 2023 Better Cotton Conference

Better Cotton is pleased to announce that we will host our 2023 Better Cotton Conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands as well as online on 21 and 22 June.

The conference will help to drive our ambitious mission and strategic direction onward whilst highlighting the important work and perspectives of others working on the same issues.

Attendees will have the opportunity to connect with industry leaders and experts to explore the most salient issues in sustainable cotton production such as climate change adaptation and mitigation, traceability, livelihoods and regenerative agriculture. In addition, we’re delighted to invite members to attend an Annual Member Meeting which we will host during the conference.

Save 21-22 June 2023 in your calendars to join the Better Cotton community at this major event for stakeholders in the sustainable cotton sector.

A huge thank you to our 2023 sponsors, ECOM and Spectrum. We have a variety of sponsorship packages available, please contact [email protected] to find out more.

2023 Sponsors

The 2022 Better Cotton Conference brought together 480 participants, 64 speakers and 49 nationalities.
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Better Cotton Signs Partnership Agreement with IDH and Cotontchad

Photo Credit: BCI/Seun Adatsi.

Stakeholder coalition to explore avenues for creating sustainable farming systems in Southern Chad

Better Cotton recently signed a multi-stakeholder Letter of Intent to participate in the landscape approach, developed with local stakeholders in Chad in conjunction with IDH. Through the partnership, the stakeholders intend to work towards improving the climate resilience of smallholder farmers in Southern Chad.

Sharing a common vision for sustainable, equitable, and socio-economic development of Chad’s Southern regions, the stakeholders will work together to design and implement a regional development plan following IDH’s Production – Protection – Inclusion (PPI) landscape approach.

This approach aims to create positive impacts for farmers and the environment through promoting and supporting sustainable production systems, inclusive land use planning and management, and the protection and regeneration of natural resources.

Cotontchad, with the support of IDH, is currently engaged in the Better Cotton New Country Start Up Process, in anticipation of starting a Better Cotton Programme in Chad, and embedding the Better Cotton Standard System (BCSS) in farming activities with thousands of small holder cotton farmers in Southern Chad

“We are very excited to begin this process with IDH and Cotontchad. Sustainable cotton is more in-demand than ever. Consumers want to know what commitments brands and retailers are making to protect the environment, mitigate climate change effects, and ensure responsible social practice. Through this process, we hope to ensure the resilience and longevity of the cotton sector in Chad by opening up new markets and increasing international collaboration whilst having a positive impact at field level.”

Better Cotton is actively reaching out to countries in Africa to explore collaboration opportunities and the potential to launch new country programmes. Implementing the BCSS ensures a commitment to sustainable farming practices that protect the environment, whilst also ensuring improved livelihoods for smallholder farmers. Furthermore, the BCSS aims to enhance positive impact on yields, soil health, use of pesticides and improved livelihoods of the farmers and also enables increased trade and improved access to international markets seeking sustainable cotton.

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Better Cotton’s Farmer-Centric Approach to Regenerative Agriculture

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton.

Better Cotton CEO, Alan McClay, by Jay Louvion

This article was first published by Sourcing Journal on 16 November 2022.

It seems regenerative agriculture is on everybody’s lips these days.

In fact, it is on the agenda at COP27 currently taking place in Sharm El-Skeikh, Egypt where WWF and Meridian Institute are hosting an event that will explore scaling regenerative approaches proving effective in different places around the globe. While Indigenous cultures have practiced it for millennia, today’s climate crisis is giving the approach new urgency. In 2021, retail behemoth Walmart even announced plans to get into the regenerative farming business, and just recently, J. Crew Group announced a pilot to pay cotton farmers utilizing regenerative practices. While there is not yet a universally accepted definition of regenerative agriculture, it centers around farming practices that restore the health of something most of us take for granted—the soil beneath our feet.

Soil is not only the foundation of farming that provides an estimated 95 percent of global food production, but it also plays a vital role in fighting climate change, as soil can lock in and store carbon, acting as a “carbon sink.” Better Cotton—the world’s leading sustainability initiative for cotton—has long been a proponent of regenerative practices, though. As buzz around the topic increases, they want to make sure that the conversation doesn’t miss an important point: regenerative agriculture has to be about people as well as the environment.

“Regenerative agriculture is closely linked to climate action and the need for a just transition,” said Chelsea Reinhardt, director of standards and assurance at Better Cotton. “For Better Cotton, regenerative agriculture is deeply connected to smallholder livelihoods. These farmers are most vulnerable to climate change and have the most to gain from methods that improve yields and resilience.”

Through the Better Cotton Programme and Standard System, which in the 2020-21 cotton season reached 2.9 million farmers across 26 countries, the organization is working to ensure that the shift to climate-smart and regenerative farming is socially and economically inclusive.

What does regenerative farming look like?

While the term regenerative agriculture means different things to different people, the core idea is that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society. Regenerative agriculture recognizes the interrelatedness of nature, from soil to water to biodiversity. It seeks to not just reduce harm to the environment and people but to also have a net positive impact, enriching the land and the communities who depend on it for generations to come.

What that looks like in practice for farmers can range depending on their local context, but it may include reducing tilling (no-till or low-till), using cover crops and agroforestry systems, rotating livestock with crops, avoiding or minimizing the use of synthetic fertilizers, and maximizing crop diversity through practices such as crop rotation and intercropping. While the scientific community does acknowledge that carbon levels in soils naturally fluctuate over time, these practices have been shown to increase the capacity to capture and store carbon in the soil.

In North Carolina, Better Cotton farmer Zeb Winslow has been reaping the benefits of regenerative practices. When he made the switch from a single grain cover crop, which he had used for many years, to a multi-species cover crop blend, he saw fewer weeds and greater soil moisture retention. He was also able to cut herbicide input by around 25 percent. As the cover crops begin to pay for themselves and Winslow reduces his herbicide input further, economic benefits are likely to be realized in the long-term.

As a cotton farmer from the previous generation, Winslow’s father, also named Zeb Winslow, was skeptical at first.

“In the beginning, I thought it was a crazy idea,” he said. “But now that I’ve seen the benefits, I’ve become more convinced.” 

As Winslow said, it isn’t easy for farmers to move away from traditional farming methods. But in the last 10 to 15 years, great strides have been made in understanding what’s going on under the ground. Winslow thinks that as soil knowledge increases, farmers will be better equipped to harmonize with nature, working with the soil instead of fighting against it.

The Better Cotton approach to regenerative agriculture

With the help of on-the-ground partners, Better Cotton Farmers around the world adopt soil and biodiversity management plans, as outlined in the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, that help them improve the health of their soil, restore degraded areas, and increase wildlife on and off their farms.

But the organization isn’t stopping there. In the latest revision of their Principles and Criteria, Better Cotton is going further to integrate key components of regenerative agriculture. Acknowledging the interrelatedness of soil health, biodiversity and water, the revised standard will merge these three principles into one principle on natural resources. The principle stipulates requirements around core regenerative practices such as maximizing crop diversity and soil cover while minimizing soil disturbance.

“There is a strong interconnected nature between regenerative agriculture and smallholder livelihoods. Regenerative agriculture leads to higher resilience, which in turn, positively influences farmers’ abilities to meet their basic needs over the long term,” said Natalie Ernst, Farm Sustainability Standards Manager at Better Cotton.

Through the Standard revision, a new principle on improving livelihoods will be introduced alongside a strengthened principle on decent work, which ensures workers’ rights, minimum wages, and health and safety standards are met. In addition, for the first time ever, there will be an explicit requirement for consultation with farmers and farm workers to inform decision making related to activity planning, training priorities and objectives for continuous improvement, which underscores the importance of farmer-centricity.

Looking further ahead, Better Cotton is exploring other ways to support access to finance and information that will give farmers and workers more power to make choices that they think are best for themselves and their families.

At the Clinton Global Initiative event in New York this September, the organization announced their intention to pioneer an insetting mechanism with smallholder farmers that would promote and incentivize better agricultural practices, including regenerative practices. Carbon insetting, as opposed to carbon offsetting, allows companies to support projects to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions within their own value chains.

Better Cotton’s traceability system, due to launch in 2023, would provide the backbone for their insetting mechanism. Once implemented, it would enable retail companies to know who grew their Better Cotton and allow them to purchase credits that go directly to farmers.

We see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive. Not only is the unsustainability of today’s intensive, input-heavy farming increasingly well understood, so too is the contribution that regenerative models can make to turning this around. The challenge going forward is to turn growing awareness into on-the-ground action.

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Investigating how textile waste could become nutrients for cotton crops

Textile waste is a global issue. An estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles are disposed of annually, with just 12% of the material used for clothing being recycled. Many clothes simply end up in landfill, where some release greenhouse gases. So what can be done to ensure precious natural fibres for clothing are recaptured and put to good use?

In Queensland, Australia, a partnership between stakeholders including the state government, Better Cotton Strategic Partners Cotton Australia and Sheridan, circularity expert Coreo, clothing charity Thread Together and Alcheringa cotton farm is exploring the potential to turn old cotton clothing into nutrients for new cotton plants. Cotton industry soil scientist and project participant Dr Oliver Knox, who presented the project in a ‘disruptors’ session at the Better Cotton Conference in June, explains how…

Dr Oliver Knox of UNE

What inspired you to address this issue?

In Australia, much of our soil landscape has low soil carbon, so anything we can do to feed and keep our soil biology alive will benefit us and the environment. It’s these microorganisms that drive the nutrient cycles we rely on to produce our crops, including cotton. We know that any leftover cotton fibre from the harvest breaks down in the soil between seasons. Meanwhile, we need action now to avoid clothing going to landfill, so we decided to explore whether end of life cotton products (primarily sheets and towels) could have the same impact, becoming a natural fertiliser for cotton.

Tell us how cotton clothing could help nourish the soil…

Within cotton products, cotton fibres have been spun into yarn and woven into fabric, so we need to assist the soil microbes in overcoming this ‘packaging challenge’ and understand the potential risk from dyes likely to have been used in clothing manufacture. Our trial at Goondiwindi showed that in all the soil where we applied cotton fabric, the microbiology responded positively. These microbes were effectively reacting to the cotton and breaking it down.

What have you done so far and why was collaboration important?

Circular economy projects always rely on collaboration between stakeholders. Having a diverse and passionate team behind this work with a wide range of skills has been essential in overcoming the numerous challenges involved. We sourced waste textiles from various sources, assessed and removed certain components, shredded them, overcame transport logistics issues, launched and monitored our trial, collated and dispatched samples, and pulled together reports.

Through our first trial, we monitored the impact of around two tonnes of shredded cotton on soil microbes on just under half a hectare, considering benefits such as carbon and water retention in soils and microbial activity. We also estimated that this trial offset 2,250kg of carbon emissions.

Importantly, we’ve confirmed it may be viable to scale up this approach, although there are still technical and logistics challenges to solve. That’s why this year we’re planning to undertake larger trials across two farms in two states, enabling us to divert ten times more textile waste from landfill this year. We’ll also be monitoring the soil and crops more closely with support from the Cotton Research and Development Corporation. It promises to be an exciting season.

What’s next?

We’ll continue checking that the breakdown of cotton will assist in promoting soil microbial function, encouraging water retention and managing weeds. We also want to be sure that we’re offsetting the potential methane production that would be associated with sending the material to landfill.

Longer term, we’d like to see this type of system adopted across Australia and beyond, and positive impacts for soil health and cotton yields and other soil health.

Dr. Oliver Knox is Associate Professor of Soil systems biology, University of New England (Australia)

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How We Are Fighting Inequality in Cotton Production

Photo Credit: Better Cotton/Khaula Jamil Location: Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, Pakistan, 2019. Description: Farm-worker Ruksana Kausar with other women who are involved in the tree nursery project developed by Better Cotton Programme Partner, WWF, Pakistan.

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton.

Better Cotton CEO, Alan McClay, by Jay Louvion

This article was first published by Reuters on 27 October 2022.

Starting with the bad news: the battle for female equality appears to be going backwards. For the first time in years, more women are leaving the workplace than joining, more girls are seeing their schooling derailed, and more unpaid care work is being placed on the shoulders of mothers.

So, at least, reads the conclusion of the United Nations’ latest progress report on its flagship Sustainable Development Goals. COVID-19 is partly to blame, as are the economic ramifications of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

But the reasons for female equality’s sluggish pace are as structural as they are situational: discriminatory mores, prejudicial laws and institutional biases remain entrenched.

Before we give up on the United Nation’s collective goal of equality for all women and girls by 2030, let’s not forget the achievement of some notable successes in the past. The route forward invites us to learn from what has worked (and continues to work) previously – and avoid what has not.

Sima Sami Bahous, executive director of U.N. Women, put it clearly when reflecting on the U.N,’s less-than-positive verdict: “The good news is that we have solutions… It simply requires that we do (them).”

Some of these solutions are founded on universal principles. UNICEF’s recently revised Gender Action Plan captures most: think challenging harmful models of male identity, reinforcing positive norms, enabling female participation, raising the voice of women’s networks, not passing responsibility onto others, and so on.

Yet, equally, each country, each community, and each industry sector will have specific solutions of its own. In the international cotton industry, for instance, the majority of those working in the field are women. In the case of India and Pakistan, female participation is as high as 70%. Decision-making, in contrast, is predominantly a male domain. Faced with limited access to finance, women all too frequently occupy the sector’s lowest-skilled and lowest-paid jobs.

The good news is this situation can be – and is being – changed. Better Cotton is a sustainability initiative that reaches 2.9 million farmers who produce 20% of the world’s cotton crop. We operate a three-tiered strategy based on interventions with a proven track record at progressing equality for women.

Step one, as always, starts within our own organisation and our immediate partners, since women (and men) need to witness an organisation’s rhetoric reflected back at them.

Our own governance has some way to go, and the Better Cotton Council has identified the need for greater female representation on this strategic and decision-making body. We’re developing plans to address this as a commitment to greater diversity. Within the Better Cotton team, however, the gender make-up skews heavily towards women 60:40, women to men. And looking beyond our own four walls, we strongly encourage the local partner organisations that we work with to ensure at least 25% of their field staff are women by 2030 recognising that these training roles have been predominately occupied by men.

Making our own immediate working environment more women-focused, in turn, supports the next tier of our strategy: namely, encouraging equality for all those involved in cotton production.

A critical step here is to ensure that we have as clear a picture as possible of the role of women in cotton farming. Previously, we counted only the “participating farmer” when calculating our reach. Expanding this definition since 2020 to all those who make decisions or have a financial stake in cotton production brought to light the centrality of female participation.

Equality for all also involves investing in the skills and resources available to cotton-producing communities. Over time, we have learned the critical importance of gender-sensitisation training and workshops in ensuring that our programmes fully address the needs and concerns of women cotton farmers.

An example is a collaboration that we are involved in with CARE Pakistan and CARE UK to look at how we can make our programmes more inclusive. One notable outcome is our adoption of new visual aids that help male and female participants to recognise inequalities in the home as well as on the farm.

Such discussions inevitably flag the structural issues that prevent greater female empowerment and equality. Culturally sensitive and politically charged as these issues can be, the abiding lesson from all successful gender mainstreaming in the past is that we ignore them at our peril.

We don’t pretend this is easy; the causative factors underpinning the inequality of women are deeply embedded in social and cultural norms. In some instances, as is well understood, they are written into legal coda. Nor do we claim to have got the problem cracked. Yet, our starting point is always to acknowledge the structural causes of female marginalisation and to take them seriously in all our programmes and interactions.

The U.N.’s recent assessment provides a stark reminder not only of how far there is still to go, but also how easy it is to lose the gains women have achieved to date. To reiterate, failure to achieve equality for women means consigning half the population to a second-tier, second-rate future.

Extending the lens more widely, women are integral to the delivery of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals’ vision of “peace and prosperity for people and the planet”. While only one of the initiative’s 17 goals is explicitly directed at women (SDG 5), none of the remainder can be achieved without meaningful female empowerment.

The world needs women to be empowered. We all want a better world. Given the chance, we can seize both and more. That’s the good news. So, let’s reverse this backward trend, which is undoing years of positive work. We’ve not a minute to lose.

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New study on Better Cotton’s impact in India shows improved profitability and positive environmental impact 

A brand-new study into the impact of the Better Cotton programme in India, conducted by Wageningen University and Research between 2019 and 2022, has found significant benefits for Better Cotton farmers in the region. The study, ‘Towards more sustainable cotton farming in India’, explores how cotton farmers who implemented Better Cotton recommended agricultural practices achieved improvements in profitability, reduced synthetic input use, and overall sustainability in farming.

The study examined farmers in the Indian regions of Maharashtra (Nagpur) and Telangana (Adilabad), and compared the results with farmers in the same areas who did not follow Better Cotton guidance. Better Cotton works with Programme Partners at farm level to enable farmers to adopt more sustainable practices, for example, better managing pesticides and fertilisers. 

The study found that Better Cotton Farmers were able to reduce costs, improve overall profitability, and safeguard the environment more effectively, compared with non-Better Cotton Farmers.

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Summary: Towards sustainable cotton farming: India Impact Study – Wageningen University & Research

Summary: Towards sustainable cotton farming: India Impact Study – Wageningen University & Research
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Towards sustainable cotton farming: India Impact Study – Wageningen University & Research

Towards sustainable cotton farming: India Impact Study – Wageningen University & Research

Reducing pesticides and improving environmental impact 

Overall, Better Cotton Farmers decreased their costs for synthetic insecticide by almost 75%, a notable decrease compared to non-Better Cotton Farmers. On average, Better Cotton Farmers in Adilabad and Nagpur saved US$44 per farmer during the season on synthetic insecticides and herbicides expenses during the season, significantly reducing their costs and their environmental impact.  

Increasing overall profitability 

Better Cotton Farmers in Nagpur received around US$0.135/kg more for their cotton than non-Better Cotton Farmers, the equivalent of a 13% price increase. Overall, Better Cotton contributed to an increase in farmers’ seasonal profitability of US$82 per acre, equivalent to about US$500 income for an average cotton farmer in Nagpur.  

Better Cotton strives to ensure that cotton production is more sustainable. It’s important that farmers see improvements to their livelihoods, which will incentivise more farmers to adopt climate resilient agricultural practices. Studies like these show us that sustainability pays off, not just for reducing environmental impact, but also in overall profitability for farmers. We can take the learnings from this study and apply it in other cotton-growing regions.”

For the baseline, the researchers surveyed 1,360 farmers. The majority of farmers involved were middle-aged, literate smallholders, who use most of their land for agriculture, with around 80% used for cotton farming.  

Wageningen University in the Netherlands is a globally important centre for life sciences and agricultural research. Through this impact report, Better Cotton seeks to analyse the effectiveness of its programmes. The survey demonstrates the clear added value for profitability and environmental protections in the development of a more sustainable cotton sector. 

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T-MAPP: Informing Targeted Action on Pesticide Poisoning

Acute, unintentional pesticide poisoning is widespread among farmers and farm workers, with smallholder cotton farmers in developing countries particularly affected. Yet the full extent of health effects remains poorly understood.

Here, Better Cotton Council Member and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK International Project Manager, Rajan Bhopal, explains how a ground-breaking app stands to capture the human impact of pesticide poisoning. Rajan presented T-MAPP at the Better Conference in June 2022 during a lively ‘disruptors’ session.

Rajan Bhopal speaking at the Better Cotton Conference in Malmö, Sweden, in June 2022

Why is the issue of pesticide poisoning largely invisible?

The term ‘pesticides’ covers a huge range of products containing varied chemistry, meaning the many signs and symptoms of poisoning can be difficult for clinicians to diagnose if they are not aware of the issue. In addition, many farmers suffer health impacts without seeking treatment, particularly in remote, rural areas, where communities lack access to affordable medical services. Too many cotton producers accept these effects as part of the job. And we know that where incidents are diagnosed by clinicians, they’re often not recorded systematically or shared with government ministries responsible for health and agriculture.

Existing health monitoring surveys can be challenging to conduct, analyse and report on. That’s why we’ve developed T-MAPP – a digital monitoring system that accelerates data collection and provides rapid analysis that turns data into accurate results on how pesticides are affecting farmers’ lives.

Tell us more about your new pesticide app

The T-MAPP app

Known as T-MAPP, our app makes data collection on pesticides poisoning more efficient, enabling field facilitators and others to collect comprehensive data on the products, practices and locations that are linked to high rates of serious pesticide poisoning. This includes detailed information farms and crops, use of protective equipment, particular pesticides and how they’re being applied, and health impacts within 24 hours of exposure. Once the data is collected and uploaded, T-MAPP allows survey managers to see analysed results in real-time via an online dashboard. Importantly, this knowledge can be harnessed to identify which pesticide products are causing poisoning and inform more targeted support.

What have you discovered so far?

Using T-MAPP, we have interviewed 2,779 cotton producers in India, Tanzania and Benin. Cotton farmers and workers are suffering widespread pesticide poisoning with significant impacts on wellbeing and livelihoods. On average, two in five had suffered pesticide poisoning in the past year. Severe symptoms of poisoning were common. Some 12% of farmers reporting severe effects that include, for example, seizures, loss of vision, or persistent vomiting.

What is being done with this information, or how could it be used?

It’s helping us understand the extent and severity of acute pesticide poisoning and find ways to tackle the issue. In some countries, regulators have used the app to monitor pesticides post-registration. In Trinidad, for example, certain pesticides could be banned for causing high rates of poisoning. Sustainability organisations are using the app to identify high risk practices and target their farmer capacity building efforts. In India, for example, the data has helped Better Cotton to focus an awareness campaign on the risks of pesticide mixtures. Elsewhere, similar surveys in Kurdistan led governments to taking action to prevent children’s exposure and involvement in pesticide spraying.

What is your message for brands and retailers?

Invest in understanding and addressing the health and environmental issues in the cotton sector, include misuse of pesticides, which are likely to be occurring in your supply chain. And by supporting high-quality capacity building programmes, you’ll be helping to protect farmers’ health, livelihoods and ability to cultivate cotton in the future.

Find out more

For more information on how Better Cotton addresses crop protection risks, visit our Pesticides and Crop Protection page.

For more information on T-MAPP, visit Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK’s website.

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Is Regenerative Farming Just a Buzzword or a Blueprint For Restoring Soil Health?

Photo Credit: BCI/Florian Lang Location: Surendranagar, Gujarat, India. 2018. Description: An farm-worker is preparing a field with the help of a manual plough, which is drawn by bulls for cotton cultivation.

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton. This opinion piece was first published by Reuters Events on 9 March 2022.

Irreversible ecosystem collapse is looming. If nothing is done to stop it, farming systems face a potentially catastrophic future, with severe implications for society the world over. 

This isn’t hyperbole. It’s the verdict of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, as recently expressed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report. The writing is already on the wall. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over one third of the world’s soils are already degraded due to erosion, salinisation, compacting, acidification and chemical pollution. The result? An absence of the diversity of life that is integral to nourishing plants and crops. 

The core idea of regenerative agriculture is that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society.

As every farmer knows, healthy soil is the foundation of productive agriculture. Not only does it help cycle nutrients and filter water, it helps increase resilience to climate change by returning carbon to the ground. Cue the new buzzword on the block, “regenerative agriculture”. From one day to the next, the phrase seems to be everywhere, from the mouths of climate advocates to the speeches of leading politicians. Not since the “Green Revolution” of the 1950s has a farming-related buzzword gathered so much pace so quickly. As ever, critics have not been slow in coming forward. Their arguments follow conventional lines. Some say the term lacks rigour – “regenerative”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “carbon-smart”, all spawn from the same woolly basket. Others maintain that it’s an old idea rehashed in modern clothing. What were the earliest agriculturalists of the Fertile Crescent if not regenerative farmers? 

Such criticisms hide more than a little truth. The term regenerative agriculture can certainly mean different things to different people. And, yes, it does embrace concepts such as reduced tilling, crop rotation and cover crops that, in some cases, go back millennia. But to gripe about terminology is to miss the point. For one, the vagaries of definition are not nearly as great or problematic as some like to claim. The core idea of regenerative agriculture – namely, that farming can give back to, rather than take from, the soil and society – is hardly controversial. 

Fuzzy terminology can confuse consumers and, worse still, facilitate greenwashing.

Secondly, farming techniques vary enormously, meaning specific methodologies are always going to be hard to pin down. Practices pursued by farmers in west Africa, where the soil is notoriously infertile, for instance, will be different from those adopted in India, where pests and erratic weather are chief concerns.   

Thirdly, lack of complete consensus doesn’t necessarily lead to a complete lack of action. Take the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals; the specifics of each goal may not please everyone, but they please people enough to amass a huge amount of collective energy.    

In a similar vein, fresh terms can refresh our thinking. A decade ago, conversations about soil health and crop yields tended heavily towards the technical. A little less fertiliser here, a little more fallow time there. Today, with talk of regenerative agriculture increasingly widespread, extractivist agriculture itself is now on the table for debate. 

Of course, clear definitions are important. In their absence, misunderstandings can arise in practice that slow or even undermine the transition to more sustainable farming. Likewise, fuzzy terminology can confuse consumers and, worse still, facilitate greenwashing. In this regard, Textile Exchange’s recently published Landscape Analysis of regenerative agriculture marks a valuable and timely contribution. Built through dialogue at all levels of the farming community, it establishes an important set of basic principles that all major players can get behind.   

We especially welcome the report’s acknowledgement of benefits beyond carbon storage and emission reductions – important as both certainly are. Regenerative agriculture is not a one-trick pony. Improvements to soil health, habitat protection and water systems are just some of the other ancillary environmental benefits it delivers. 

We see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive.

Likewise, as an organisation committed to improving the livelihoods of millions of cotton producers, the emphasis on social outcomes is also to be applauded. As critical actors in the agricultural system, the voices of farmers and workers are fundamental to deciding how regenerative farming is framed and what outcomes it should aim for. 

To reiterate, we see the fact of regenerative agriculture now being on everyone’s lips as a huge positive. Not only is the unsustainability of today’s intensive, input-heavy farming increasingly well understood, so too is the contribution that regenerative models can make to turning this around. The challenge going forward is to turn growing awareness into on-the-ground action. The issues that regenerative farming seek to address are urgent. At Better Cotton, we’re big believers in continuous improvement. Rule number one? Get out of the blocks and get started. 

One key lesson we have learned over the last decade or so is that effective action won’t happen without an effective strategy to back it up. That’s why we encourage our participating field-level partners to establish a comprehensive soil management plan, spelling out tangible steps for improving soil biodiversity and preventing land degradation. Another crucial impetus to action is telling a convincing story. Farmers won’t transition from what they know on the basis of anecdotes and promises. Hard evidence is required. And, for that, investment in monitoring and data research is needed. 

Fashions, by nature, move on. In the case of regenerative agriculture, expect definitions to be refined and approaches to be revised. As a basic concept of how we ought to farm, however, it is firmly here to stay. Neither the planet nor farmers can afford it otherwise. 

Learn more about Better Cotton and soil health

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World Cotton Day – A Message from Better Cotton’s CEO

Alan McClay Headshot
Alan McClay, Better Cotton CEO

Today, on World Cotton Day, we are happy to be celebrating the farming communities around the world that provide us with this essential natural fibre.

The social and environmental challenges we came together to address in 2005, when Better Cotton was founded, are even more urgent today, and two of those challenges — climate change and gender equality — stand to be the key issues of our time. But there are also clear actions we can take to solve them. 

When we look at climate change, we see the scale of the task ahead. At Better Cotton, we are drawing up our own climate change strategy to help farmers deal with these painful effects. Importantly, the strategy will also address the cotton sector’s contribution to climate change, which The Carbon Trust estimates at 220 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. The good news is that the technologies and practices to address these issues are already there — we only need to put them in place.

Cotton and climate change – an illustration from India

Photo Credit: BCI/Florian Lang Location: Surendranagar, Gujarat, India. 2018. Description: BCI Lead Farmer Vinodbhai Patel (48) in his field. While many farmers are burning the weed stubble, which is left on the field, Vinoodbhai is leaving the remaining stalks. The stalks will later get ploughed into the earth to increase the biomass in the soil.

At Better Cotton, we’ve witnessed the disruption that climate change brings first-hand. In Gujarat, India, Better Cotton Farmer Vinodbhai Patel struggled for years with low, irregular rainfall, poor soil quality and pest infestations on his cotton farm in the village of Haripar. But without access to knowledge, resources or capital, he, along with many other smallholder farmers in his region, relied partially on government subsidies for conventional fertilisers, as well as credit from local shopkeepers to buy traditional agro-chemical products. Over time, these products only degraded the soil further, making it harder to grow healthy plants.

Vinodbhai now uses exclusively biological fertilisers and pesticides to produce cotton on his six-hectare farm — and he is encouraging his peers to do the same. By managing insect-pests using ingredients sourced from nature — at no cost to him — and planting his cotton plants more densely, by 2018, he had reduced his pesticide costs by 80% compared to the 2015-2016 growing season, while increasing his overall production by over 100% and his profit by 200%.  

The potential for change becomes even greater when we factor women into the equation. There’s mounting evidence that shows the relationship between gender equality and climate change adaptation. In other words, we are seeing that when women’s voices are elevated, they make decisions that benefit everyone, including driving the adoption of more sustainable practices.

Gender Equality – an illustration from Pakistan

Photo Credit: BCI/Khaula Jamil. Location: Vehari District, Punjab, Pakistan, 2018. Description: Almas Parveen, BCI Farmer and Field Facilitator, delivering a BCI training session to BCI Farmers and Farm-workers in the same Learning Group (LG). Almas is discussing how to select the correct cotton seed.

Almas Parveen, a cotton farmer in the Vehari district of Punjab, Pakistan is familiar with these struggles. In her corner of rural Pakistan, entrenched gender roles mean women often have little opportunity to influence farming practices or business decisions, and female cotton workers are often restricted to low paid, manual tasks, with less job security than men.

Almas, however, was always determined to overcome these norms. Since 2009, she’s been running her family’s nine-hectare cotton farm herself. While that alone was remarkable, her motivation didn’t stop there. With support from our Implementing Partner in Pakistan, Almas became a Better Cotton Field Facilitator to enable other farmers — both men and women — to learn and benefit from sustainable farming techniques. At first, Almas’ faced opposition from members of her community, but in time, the farmers’ perceptions changed as her technical knowledge and sound advice resulted in tangible benefits on their farms. In 2018, Almas increased her yields by 18% and her profits by 23% compared to the previous year. She also achieved a 35% reduction in pesticide use. In the 2017-18 season, the average Better Cotton Farmer in Pakistan increased their yields by 15%, and reduced their pesticide use by 17%, in comparison to non-Better Cotton Farmers.

The issues of climate change and gender equality serve as powerful lenses with which to view the current state of the cotton sector. They show us that our vision of a sustainable world, where cotton farmers and workers know how to cope — with threats to the environment, low productivity and even limiting societal norms — is within reach. They also show us that a new generation of cotton farming communities will be able to make a decent living, have a strong voice in the supply chain and meet growing consumer demand for more sustainable cotton. 

The bottom line is that transforming the cotton sector is not the work of one organisation alone. So, on this World Cotton Day, as we all take this time to listen and learn from each other, reflecting on the importance and role of cotton around the world, I’d like to encourage us to band together and leverage our resources and networks.

Together, we can deepen our impact and catalyse systemic change. Together, we can make the transformation to a sustainable cotton sector — and world — a reality.

Alan McClay

CEO, Better Cotton

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Better Cotton Appears in Ecotextile News Addressing Climate Change

On 4 October 2021, Ecotextile News published “Can cotton cool climate change?”, exploring the role cotton growing plays in climate change. The article looks closely at Better Cotton’s climate strategy and draws from an interview with Lena Staafgard, COO, and Chelsea Reinhardt, Director of Standards and Assurance, to understand how we plan to impact climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Accelerating the pace of change

With Better Cotton’s recent study on GHG emissions commissioned with Anthesis and our work with Cotton 2040, we now have better information to identify the areas contributing most to emissions and which regions will be most affected by climate change. Our existing Standard and programmes implemented on-the-ground by partners and farmers across the Better Cotton network currently address these issue areas. But we need to act fast to build on what already exists to deepen our impact.

What we are looking to do really is to refine our focus and accelerate the pace of change, to have a deeper impact in those particular areas that are the big drivers of emissions.

– Chelsea Reinhardt, Director of Standards and Assurance

Collaborating across the cotton sector

The recent Cotton 2040 study shows that half of all cotton growing areas are at high risk of extreme weather conditions in the coming decades, and we have the opportunity to take action in these regions with our potential to convene relevant stakeholders. There are challenges in providing solutions that are relevant to localised conditions, so we are using our nuanced understanding of these issues and are in a position to address them with appropriate strategies through the network we have. Ensuring we bring smallholder and large farm contexts into our approach is important.

We should be able to get there, but it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to require a lot of collaboration, pulling in the technology and the knowledge we have at the large farms and finding ways of making it available at smallholder level where so much of the world’s agriculture takes place.

Lena Staafgard, COO

Better Cotton is in a position where we have the resources and network to collaborate towards change. Join our upcoming Member-Only Webinar to learn more about Better Cotton’s 2030 Strategy on Climate Change.

Read the full Ecotextile News article, “Can cotton cool climate change?”

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