Growing Cotton in a Fair, Sustainable Way: A Few Thoughts on the Haiti Cotton Project
Some people, when they first hear about our organic cotton project in Haiti, ask me: what are you doing to make sure the farmers are treated well? Are they getting a fair wage?
Some people go further than that, asking how this project is any different from the old colonial times, when slaves were exploited and treated in inhumane ways while working the cotton farms.Given history, these are of course extremely important and fair questions.
In short, smallholder farmers come first in our project. In fact, the whole project is designed to empower them, improve their livelihoods, while at the same time incentivizing them to positively impact the environment (the name of our Haitian NGO / farmers cooperative is “Smallholder Farmers Alliance”).
That said, of course the truth is that we also have to make compromises: somehow we are trying to create a model that allows us to turn this smallholder driven agricultural project into a viable enterprise that can cater to a global supply chain. This is by no means easy. Has anyone of you ever spent 8 hours (or more) working the land in the tropics? It is tough. EXTREMELY TOUGH! If it were up to us, we would pay our farmers 10x what they earn now. Or more! They so deserve it! However, how much are you really willing to shell out for that organic cotton t-shirt?
And this is where the whole thing becomes a delicate juggling act, where on the one hand we do what we can to protect our farmers interests, while at the same time trying to ensure they can benefit from this immense opportunity that could potentially tremendously improve their lives. How to do this?
Just raising the prices for consumer won’t work: there is only so much you’re willing to pay for your cotton t-shirt, no matter how good the story. Where the real gains can be made, however, is in the different stages of the supply chain: currently retailers make the biggest margins while assuming relatively small risk. Meanwhile, the farmers make tiny margins and assume a big risk: they need to buy their seeds and inputs, but what if their crop fails?
Clearly, a big part of the solution lies in a more equitable distribution of margins and profits along the supply chain: it is the only way that each part of the chain gets their fair share. Another part lies in both companies at the end of the chain, and governments taking on the responsibility to help mitigate risks for farmers at the beginning of the chain: yes, cotton can in fact be grown using sustainable, and even regenerative methods. However, it is often way too risky for a farmer to make the investment (both in time and resources) to transition to new methods of production. Clearly, the government and powerful companies that dominate the supply chain can play an important role here, assuming part of the costs and risks that are implied by this process of transition.
Can cotton be grown sustainably? And with farmers getting fair wages and livelihoods? No doubt. However, it will require all of us to take a human centered approach, and thinking in solutions. In our case, the farmers are already doing the hardest part, so time for all of us to do our part as well!
I am Chris, a certified permaculture designer, sustainable development professional and DIYer. Join my mission to go beyond sustainable, one project at a time.
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