Chair of TE Europe comments on TE's new Farm & Fiber Report
MOVING UP TO THE GOLD STANDARD OF ORGANIC
Browsing through Textile Exchange’s excellent new Farm and Fiber Report, I was struck by the number of “More Sustainable Cotton” initiatives that are now on offer – they are covered for the first time in the 2012 Report. When Textile Exchange started (as Organic Exchange) 10 years ago, the choice was organic, organic fairtrade, or conventional – now there’s a whole multiplicity of programmes, all offering different benefits and operating different sets of rules.
What all these new initiatives share is an easier entry point – if you’re a conventional cotton farmer wanting to change, it’s an easier step up than it would be for organic. That’s undoubtedly a good thing – the challenge of achieving the organic standard must be daunting, along with the requirement to be ‘in transition’ – a form of limbo – for three years while you wait for your changes to take effect. With the new sustainable cotton programmes you’re in with no waiting, an important factor in the uncertain world of farming. Any improvement in sustainability is to be welcomed.
But that easier entry point must be just that – an entry point. The danger is that conventional producers come in to one of these programmes, get the ‘badge’ of sustainability, and then relax – meeting the entry requirements but no more. Most of the programmes counteract this by promoting ‘continuous improvement’ - a series of training and development processes that mean that farm techniques should get better as each year passes. The programmes are so new – only 1 or 2 harvests in some cases - that it’s difficult to gauge how well this is working, but the positive intention is certainly there.
The interesting question for these programmes is whether they see themselves as a destination, or a stage on the sustainability journey. In short – do you join and stay, or ‘graduate’ to organic status when appropriate? An easier entry point and a sequence of continuous improvement is an excellent beginning, but what’s the eventual intention? We in organic would love to see conventional producers getting a taste for sustainability, taking their first steps with one of the new initiatives, and then moving up to the gold standard which organic represents.
In coffee, the 4C Association – a mainstream sustainability initiative – explicitly state their intention that farmers should move onwards and upwards. As they say in their Annual Report, “After complying with the 4C Code, farmers are in a better position to further improve their performance to meet the compliance criteria of more demanding standards”
No doubt the new cotton sustainability programmes are so busy getting started that it’s too early to ask what happens next. But it’s an important question to consider. If we could achieve a range of programmes providing a ‘way in’ for everyone and a globally recognised organic destination, that would be a great contribution to the globe and its people.
Chair, Textile Exchange Europe
Simon is chair of Textile Exchange's new European charity. Simon is also founder of CSR Consultancy, a partner in Change Agency and chair of the UK Schumacher Sociey. He facilitates and consults on sustainability issues to companies, industry groups, think tanks, and non-profits worldwide.