By Natalie Ernst, Farm Sustainability Standards Manager at Better Cotton
How does Better Cotton effectively implement a sustainability standard across two million individual licensed farmers? How can cotton farmers demonstrate progress in areas such as regenerative soil health practices, pesticide reduction, and decent work? How do we know that our field-level training is delivering positive changes?
The key factor that underpins the answer to all of these questions is an effective management system. This not only allows producers to plan and monitor progress, but also helps them to adjust their activities based on their learnings – a key tenet of Better Cotton’s focus on continuous improvement.
As we roll out Better Cotton’s revised Principles and Criteria for next season, this crucial concept of management systems is taking centre stage.
How do we support our partners to carry out effective management?
Under our system at Better Cotton, smallholder and medium cotton farmers are grouped into what we call ‘Producer Units’ (PUs) – groups of between 3,000 and 4,000 farms in smallholder contexts and 20-200 farms in a medium farm context – each with their own central management system and ‘Producer Unit Manager’, the person responsible for managing the PU.
These Producer Units are then further divided into smaller ‘Learning Groups’, each of which is supported by a Field Facilitator. Our Field Facilitators are the front line of Better Cotton at the field level – they carry out training, raise awareness of sustainable practices, visit farmers one-to-one, engage with local community leaders and institutions, and collect critical data on field practices.
When a Producer Unit is established, the staff’s first task is to set up an informed activity and monitoring plan. This plan should cover all areas of our Principles and Criteria, and take into account local priorities and the needs and aspirations of farming communities. Activities are then carried out and monitored according to this plan, and at the end of the season, the PU management and Field Facilitator come together to assess what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Based on these learnings, they can then re-adjust their next year’s activity and monitoring plans.
Our required management systems are comparable to the integrated management systems that companies across various sectors employ. Indeed, Large Farms are generally managed similarly to regular companies, and consequently our management requirements for the large farm context focus on whether a farm’s existing systems enable continuous improvement and learning. These systems should help large farms to track and address non-conformities with our standard, and enable monitoring of impacts on the environment and communities – within and outside their farm’s boundaries.
How does our revised Principles and Criteria drive improvements in management?
In April 2023, we announced the latest revision of our Principles and Criteria (P&C), our field-level standard, which was carried out in order to ensure that the P&C remains an effective tool to drive continuous improvement and deliver sustainability impact.
One of the key changes that we made as part of this revision was to make Management the first Principle in our P&C, recognising its critical function in driving and measuring progress across all areas.
With the updated document introducing new requirements, Producer Units will be asked to place greater focus on establishing relevant and inclusive activity plans and monitoring systems, and ensuring field data is analysed to inform future activities.
Beyond management systems, several other key changes are being introduced as part of the revised Management Principle:
- Extensive consultation with farmers and farming communities will now be an explicit requirement, to ensure farmer priorities are better reflected in PU-level activities
- We have strengthened requirements around effective and inclusive capacity strengthening. While the P&C always had capacity strengthening requirements, Producer Units will now be explicitly required to ensure capacity strengthening activities cover the locally relevant content and are delivered in an equitable and engaging way to farming households and workers
- A specific focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation has been introduced – although related practices (such as reducing fertiliser use, or efficient irrigation) will remain integrated throughout the standard
- A greater focus on addressing gender issues has been incorporated, recognising the critical role of women in cotton production. This will include designated responsibilities to consult with farming households and workers, identify gender-related challenges, and implement solutions
- There is a broader focus on collaborative action to address sustainability challenges. In the previous version of our P&C, we outlined a requirement for collaborative action on water issues – in the updated P&C, this has been expanded to recognise the importance of working with other stakeholders on any relevant sustainability issue
We look forward to working closely with our Programme Partners to roll out the revised P&C next season and to continue investing in good approaches to support and monitor cotton farmers, and particularly smallholder farmers, at scale.
To find out more about the revision of our P&C, check out the other blogs in this series here.