11 Jul 2018

The art of collaboration

Collaboration is a word that frequently gets bandied around.

We are told it is good for business, but have we ever considered that it promotes business for good? Jen Marsden delves into how collaboration is making an impact in the Indian sustainable cotton industry.

Not for profit organizations need collaboration to ensure a steady, strategic focus, often with a narrow objective to ensure a wider reach without crossover from other organizations. Companies with a triple bottom line that put people and planet with profit are more often than not already seasoned collaborators.

Let us be clear. The cotton industry is far more complex than you might initially imagine. The management of a finished cotton product has often invisible threads of activity running through it, something that us as consumers neither see nor would easily understand.

It is not as straightforward as planting a seed, letting it grow with some inputs, picking and ginning and then spinning and weaving. This process is even more entangled when we consider a sustainable supply chain, particular when involving Fairtrade and organic certification and international production and labor standards.

There is one remarkable side of the sustainable alternative within the cotton industry: collaboration on an often immeasurable scale. Indeed, perhaps if we tried to measure the level of collaboration that occurs within a sustainable cotton supply chain, we may find it difficult, with so many benefactors and beneficiaries involved in the entire process.

The cooperative system

By default, Fairtrade and organic cotton requires collaboration.

Chetna Organic in India works with farmers to help them organize into small village cooperatives, who feed into larger regional cooperatives. At each layer, decision-making together is crucial. There are plenty of decisions to be made and information to be shared: how and when to grow and pick the cotton most effectively, on a season by season basis; how to store the picked cotton; when to sell it, and what to use the Fairtrade premium for, which the cooperative receives for all its efforts of being certified at an international level.

Chetna Organic then supports the cooperatives with access to the international market by selling the finished bulk garments to suppliers such as Dibella, who provide high performance and long-lasting contract textile services across Europe.

Guaranteeing orders

Unfortunately, Fairtrade and organic cotton still makes up just a small percentage of the total cotton market, and it is often small brands rather than multinationals who make these purchases. In order to make it worthwhile for farmers to follow the strict process of Fairtrade and organic farming, and at a competitive price for the brands who are buying the textiles, it’s only in very recent years that collaboration has become the solution. If brands – competing or otherwise – can come together and highlight in advance how much cotton they require as an entire unit, there is more stability for the farmer, and more guarantee on the price and availability for the brands. A perfect example of this type of union is Chetna Coalition, also known as ChetCo, which was set up to realize the power in numbers and build a greater demand for organic cotton. The system is similar to that of Community Supported Agriculture, focused on small and medium brands.

Beyond the Fairtrade premium

The Fairtrade premium is considered a key focus for farmers to ensure that above the fair wage they receive for their cotton, they also benefit from a premium that they can choose how to use to improve their community. This could be building a school, a warehouse or even a borehole to improve water supply.

Some in the sustainable cotton industry are calling for what they call the Fairtrade plus system – a gold standard of sustainability. This goes beyond one certification standard and incorporates all social and environmental disciplines. More than organic cultivation, Fairtrade with its premium, they are seeking brands to have direct relationships with their supplier communities and support them economically on a mutual gain and needs basis. It is argued that the premium alone is not enough to balance the inequity between the retailers who make an overinflated profit compared to the raw textile producers.

Some companies are already supporting this extra layer of philanthropic support. More extraordinarily, is when companies considered direct competitors come together. This can only be achieved when companies have transparency in their supply chain.

You might wonder why direct companies are even speaking with one another, unless covertly to gain competitor information. Yet, as is the case of Blycolin and Lamme, the two largest corporate hospitality textile rental services in the Netherlands, they are both working together for one simple goal: to support a school with a difference.

The school in question is a boarding school for 335 girls of cotton farming communities within a large cotton growing region. Aged between five and 18 years, these girls have been attending this school for the benefit of more than just education and opportunity. In areas where receiving a small and unsteady seasonal income as in the case of cotton growing, ensuring good diet and nutrition all year round by attending school is considered a privilege for these children.

The boarding school also reduces the chances of child labor. If physically removed from their family farms, there is less likelihood of the young girls being pulled in – for want of nothing better to do – to help with the cotton sowing, weeding and picking. Parents of these children know that their young women stand a better chance by attending school and learning beyond their indigenous language both the national and state languages as well as English. They can come back to their communities educated and better equipped to support their farms. Meanwhile with the children away at school, the parents are able to focus on their core job: to provide a livelihood.

One could argue that this approach separates families and communities, yet it seemingly works, with parents visiting their children on days off, and with the girls always returning for key festivals and notable dates. realis

So why would Blycolin and Lamme support the same school? Simply – because of communication. With Blycolin’s firm value of sustainability and a genuine belief in having a responsibility towards the communities of its supply chain, the company continually visit India and witness for themselves, alongside their supplier Dibella, to see what more they can do to support them.

Blycolin realizes two fundamentals: one is that without cotton they have no business. The second is that the Fairtrade premium alone is not always going to be enough to ensure the long-term success of their suppliers, particularly at a time when there are more uncertainties at play than ever, such as the unpredictability of the climate. Rather than make assumptions about what the communities who produce their raw assets need, it is best to go directly to the source and listen to the farmers to understand what would make a substantial difference.

Blycolin learnt that this particular girl’s boarding school in a cotton-producing region was losing students due to the fact there were no desks for comfortable studying, and no lavatories or bathrooms at a time when the girls began menstruating. This in turn stopped the girls from completing their education and taking their tenth-grade exams, the equivalent to receiving a high school education. Blycolin took it as their responsibility for building two new lavatory blocks with clean water, and providing the desks, financing what in European business standards is a drop in the ocean of their profits. The company also donated bicycles, to allow the girls to easily cycle to and from their parent’s homes, funded a dance teacher to encourage recreation time for the girls, and provided equipment for both computer and science laboratories.

When supporting the school, Blycolin spoke to their competitor Lamme and explained the need, and encouraged them to participate. Both companies understood that what may be seen as a philanthropic gesture is crucial for future business success. Lamme became a joint donor, and when the new bathroom blocks were opened, the sponsorship plaque highlighted the competitors’ names side by side.

Collaboration such as this is a very promising and insightful way of creating better business that directly impacts the many different links that are needed within a supply chain, and is trailblazers like Chetna Organic and its Chetna Coalition, Dibella the supplier, and Blycolin and Lamme, the end users who are paving the way for other organizations to come together and follow suit.

Do you want to know more about the Chetna project or Pure Eco? Feel free to contact us.