Photo Credit: Better Cotton/Seun Adatsi. Location: Kolondieba, Mali. 2019 Description: Tata Djire, Agronomist, with Better Cotton Farmer Fatou, guiding her on fibre quality.
Photo credit: Maria Sabine Kjær

By Maria Sabine Kjær, Sustainable Livelihoods Manager at Better Cotton

The cotton industry is a vital component of the global textile supply chain, but behind the fabric we wear lies a complex web of challenges faced by cotton farmers, particularly smallholders and medium-sized farms. These challenges encompass not only agricultural practices but also the broader economic well-being of the farmers and their communities.  

In a significant move earlier this year, Better Cotton introduced a new Sustainable Livelihoods Principle as part of our revised standard – the Principles and Criteria (P&C). This bold step aims to make cotton farming economically viable for all, with a special focus on smallholders and medium farms. 

What Is the New Sustainable Livelihoods Principle? 

This new addition to our P&C is specifically designed to support smallholders and medium farms within the cotton farming sector. It comprises two crucial indicators that serve as a guide on our path towards sustainable livelihoods for cotton farmers. 

Indicator 1: Our first indicator urges Producer Units to actively engage with farmers, farm workers, and other relevant community stakeholders to assess the primary obstacles preventing an increase in income and resilience. This process also involves an analysis of available resources, both material and non-material, alongside evaluating the enabling environment to identify key livelihood focus areas. The intent is to ensure that Producers understand the broader livelihood dynamics and listen to the voices on the ground to pinpoint precisely where change is needed most. 

Indicator 2: Having identified these critical areas, it’s time to take tangible actions. Indicator 2 requires Producers to take measures that are tailored to the local context and result in sustained improvement within the designated priority areas of livelihood development over an extended period. The Producer Unit will closely monitor progress and transparently demonstrate how their initiatives contribute to improvements over time. Collaboration and partnerships are actively encouraged, with measures in place to prevent any adverse effects. We’re not just talking about change; we’re actively pursuing it.

Defining Smallholders and Medium Farms:

Smallholders (SH): Farms with a farm size typically not exceeding 20 hectares of cotton which are not structurally dependent on permanent hired labour. 

Medium Farms (MF): Farms with a farm size typically between 20 to 200 hectares of cotton which usually are structurally dependent on permanent hired labour. 

Why Is This So Important to Us? 

The inclusion of the Sustainable Livelihoods Principle in our P&C reaffirms our commitment to improving the livelihoods of cotton farmers. Many of our Programme Partners are already well-versed in this field. They actively engage with a diverse range of groups, including women, young people, labourers, and landless farmers, often extending support to those facing the most vulnerable circumstances.  

By understanding the primary needs and challenges faced by these communities, we can find feasible and sustainable strategies to address their unique circumstances. The Principle aligns our initiatives with actual needs, leverages the expertise of our experienced partners, and ensures that our actions yield tangible, sustainable improvements. 

Recognising the varying capacities of our partners, we are implementing this change in a step-by-step manner. The second indicator, focusing on the measures taken, will be fully implemented in the 24-25 season. We’re also tailoring guidance to specific country contexts and conducting a comprehensive mapping exercise to ascertain where additional support is most needed. 

Flexibility in Our Approach 

We understand that livelihood interventions are multifaceted and deeply rooted in local contexts. That’s why we’re adopting a flexible approach, ensuring that any measures taken are well-informed. We want to leave room for innovation and the flexibility to seize opportunities as they arise. Livelihoods come in diverse forms, and we anticipate that our partners will employ a wide array of strategies to achieve their objectives. These strategies encompass boosting incomes, safeguarding rights, increasing access to financial resources, addressing health and sanitation issues, and enhancing access to social protection. In essence, we’re prepared to embrace a broad spectrum of initiatives in alignment with the Sustainable Livelihoods Principle. 

Connecting the Dots: Impact Targets and Beyond 

Our Sustainable Livelihoods Principle is intricately connected to our broader organisational goals. This isn’t just rhetoric; we have tangible Impact Targets. By 2030, our aim is to sustainably increase the net income and resilience of two million cotton farmers and workers. Our forthcoming Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, which we will publish by the end of 2023, will provide detailed insights into how Better Cotton intends to achieve the targeted improvements in livelihoods. It’s a crucial step towards transparency and accountability.  

While we place a strong focus on livelihoods, we must not lose sight of the pressing issues of climate change and gender equality. These are vital aspects of our mission, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to addressing them proactively. Both climate change and gender equality considerations are cross-cutting issues nested in the new Principle. To hear more about this approach, check out my Q&A from earlier this year

Better Cotton’s new Sustainable Livelihoods Principle marks a significant turning point in the cotton industry’s journey towards sustainability and social impact. By prioritising the economic well-being of cotton farmers, especially smallholders and medium farms, and adopting a community-centric approach, Better Cotton is paving the way for a more equitable and sustainable future for farmers in the cotton supply chain. Stay tuned for further updates as we embark on this journey together! 

What is a ‘Producer’?

A Producer is a Better Cotton licence holder, with whom the overall responsibility for ensuring compliance with the Better Cotton P&C v.3.0 sits. In a Smallholder or Medium Farm context such as this, a Producer Unit groups numerous Smallholder or Medium Farms together into one licensed unit.

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