Nearly half the fibres used in clothing and textiles all over the world are cotton. More than 20 million tonnes of the stuff is produced each year in around 90 different countries, and India ranks in the top three – nestled between China and the USA.

Whilst pipped to the post as the largest producer overall, India still holds the title for the world’s largest area under cotton cultivation at 12.2 million hectares. But for all those miles and miles of cotton bales, less than one per cent is organic. It’s a situation with far-reaching implications, from individual health concerns to mass environmental degradation.

Cotton is a thirsty crop, demanding as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce enough for a t-shirt and a single pair of jeans. This places enormous strain in climate-affected areas, where the land is harder to irrigate.

The rise of GM (genetically modified) cotton types in response to water scarcity has led to an increase in pest-resistance, which in turn has led to the increased use of agro-chemicals. Despite cotton accounting for just 2.4 per cent of the world’s cropland, it makes use of almost a quarter of all insecticides sold.

These chemicals have damaging properties that can cause significant health complications for cotton workers, in addition to major consequences in the surrounding ecosystems due to chemical run-off from the fields. It’s a disabling cycle that makes cotton a curious beast – at once a victim of climate change whilst being a contributor towards it – which is why any move towards organic production is good news for both people and planet.

This is one part of the business case put forward by two Japanese companies – Itochu and Kurkku – that work directly with Indian cotton farmers to support their transformation towards organic production. Itochu, which runs a textiles company, launched the Pre-Organic Cotton (POC) programme in 2008 to help farmers obtain organic certification over three years. Normally this lengthy process is a barrier for farmers because they are unable to adjust their prices to account for decreasing yields, which can sometimes run to 20 to 30 per cent. 

Despite cotton accounting for just 2.4 per cent of the world’s cropland, it makes use of almost a quarter of all insecticides sold

Through the POC programme, the two companies proactively purchase the not-yet-certified cotton at a higher price than farmers could obtain on the free market for conventional, uncertified cotton. Furthermore, they provide education and training, and access to non-GM seeds, to give farmers the best chance of meeting the certification requirements. 

Itochu estimates that in 2017 they will be handling 10,000 tonnes of organic cotton through this programme, accounting for an eye-watering YEN five billion (equivalent to $42 million) in sales of related products. Kurkku estimate they have already seen a whopping 500 per cent increase in sales between 2008 and 2012 as a result. This is the other part of the business case for organic production – its market attraction – and the element that is most likely to get investors and suppliers involved in a meaningful way.

An estimated 250 million people’s livelihoods are supported by cotton production all over the world. At this scale, it’s a tall order to expect one single solution to transform global production. But by watching, and learning, we may find within these organic cotton husks our chance to sew the seeds of change. 

This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

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