When you got dressed for work today, it’s likely that you reached for a cotton t-shirt or button up. I’d be fairly confident in saying you’re wearing cotton underwear, too. You might even be wearing pants – cotton pants, that is. 

Cotton is definitely in your wardrobe, then, but do you ever stop to think about the origins of your cotton garments? 

Just like coffee and chocolate, cotton is often grown on small, family-run farms using fairly old-fashioned farming methods. This makes it difficult for cotton farmers to compete in the global market. And to make things worse, while production costs of cotton rise each year, the price of cotton doesn’t always keep pace.

That’s one of the reasons why, as I write this, a huge protest is happening in India. It’s in response to a set of laws that passed last year in relation to the sale and pricing of farm produce in India. The protesters are worried they will have less bargaining power in relation to sale costs with the new laws in place. 

Money and the sale price of crops are big issues in developing countries that produce our cotton. Sadly, more than 20,000 people in India’s farming sector died from suicide from 2018-2019, and studies suggest that debt was a key factor in this. 

In countries such as China, other issues are at play. The recent coverage of forced labour in Xinjiang has highlighted the challenges in cotton supply chains that are often highly fragmented, where forced and child labour is a recurring problem and traceability is extremely poor. 

Farmer security, forced and child labour are just some of the reasons that Fairtrade, the organisation that’s known for ethical coffee and chocolate certification, branched into the cotton industry some 17 years ago. 

Fairtrade Cotton Farming in India

Specifically, they wanted to help farmers in developing countries such as India and Senegal to find efficient ways of producing cotton, and work with them to find better ways to sell their cotton so that their incomes were more stable.

Currently just 0.2% of global cotton production is certified Fairtrade, but that’s still a significant amount on a global scale, and it makes a big difference to the farmers with the Fairtrade certification. 

So, you’re probably wondering what the Fairtrade Standards cover when it comes to cotton production and farming? 

Clive Marriott looks after Commercial Partnerships at Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand. He says the Fairtrade Standards include a guaranteed Fairtrade Minimum Price for seed cotton for farmers. 

“This means farmers can be confident that their incomes won’t fall below a certain level even if the market price plummets,” Clive says. 

“But it’s just a minimum. If the market is higher or a cotton farmer produces cotton of a high quality, then buyers need to pay a higher price.” 

The Fairtrade Minimum Price is set by region and variety, and ranges from AU$0.62/kg in South Asia to AU$1.05/kg in Kyrgyzstan. In India, the Government sets a ‘Minimum Support Price’ which in recent years has been similar to the Fairtrade Minimum Price. 

On top of that, producer organisations or cooperatives get what’s called a Fairtrade Premium for the cotton they sell. As a group they decide how to spend this money for the benefit of the community or their cooperative. The Fairtrade Premium is currently AU$0.08/kg. 

Fairtrade cotton t-shirt

Fairtrade doesn’t operate in a silo, though. Beyond the cotton farm gate, every stage of the cotton supply chain is subject to what is known as the Trader Standard. 

“This requires that all businesses – ginners, spinners, knitters, weavers, dyers, CMT etc – adhere to the ILO (International Labour Organisation) base code with regards to forced labour, child labour, payment of minimum wages, freedom of association and so on,” Clive says. 

“It’s fairly base level stuff but still super important.” 

To comply, operators must also adhere fully to the environmental laws in their country and may not use chemicals prohibited on Fairtrade’s hazardous materials list.

The Fairtrade Standard also includes protections against the types of unfair trading practices that have been evident in apparel supply chains during COVID, like cancellations of orders, which disproportionately impact workers in garment factories.

Despite cotton being a resource that is present in so much of our daily life – from our clothes to our bathrooms to our bedding and more – the people at the start of the supply chain have little security over their livelihood. Fairtrade is helping to change that. 

Of all the ethical and sustainability initiatives in cotton, only Fairtrade and organic (GOTS) offer full physical and documentary traceability. There are many other initiatives which cover different stages of the supply chain, but only Fairtrade certifies cotton the whole length of the chain.

So, how do you know if your cotton is Fairtrade? 

Fairtrade Cotton Logo
The current Fairtrade Cotton logo

Look for the Fairtrade mark (on sewn-in labels and/or hangtags). If you can see that mark on products then you can be sure that the supply chains are certified and audited from the farm all the way through to the manufacturer of the finished product.

Fairtrade’s brand partners or licensees – including Macpac, Kowtow and Organic Crew – pay Fairtrade to do the certification and work with farmers because they think it’s important, and want to make sure the cotton they are using is ethical and sustainable.

But beware, some of the Fairtrade callouts aren’t so legit. 

“Where businesses are claiming that they have ‘bought from fair trade factories’ but do not use a Fairtrade Mark on their products, there is no assurance that in fact the supply chain is certified,” Clive says. 

“There are a few cases where Fairtrade Licensees choose not to use the Mark but fully respect auditing processes; we list all cotton Fairtrade licensees on our website so shoppers can always check there to be sure.”

Just like the coffee, tea and chocolate industries, the cotton industry still has a way to go. But certifications such as Fairtrade and GOTS are helping to empower farmers and provide supply chain traceability. 

It’s a big step in the right direction – we just need more brands to support it.