It’s advantage India as organic cotton pushes the sustainable narrative

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With changing consciousness, consumers are being increasingly mindful of the fabric they wear and use and whether it is kind to the planet.

In the last few years, giving in to the rising demand for “better cotton”—cotton grown under schemes that eliminate the nastiest pesticides and encourage strict water management, large global apparel makers and brands are more voluntarily committing to sustainability.

This has resulted in the organic cotton movement gaining ground worldwide, relatively shunning cheaper clothing variants that include polyester blends.

Advantage India

India is the largest producer of organic cotton in the world, contributing 51 percent of world’s produce. In 2018-19, there was a 43 percent increase in organic cotton production.

According to industry experts, the area under organic cotton cultivation in India is around three lakh hectares which is about 2 percent of the 130 lakh hectares under total cotton cultivation.

The production of organic cotton is around 7.2 lakh bales of 170 kg each which is about 2 percent of the total production of 360 lakh cotton bales.

“Currently, cotton is the single largest organic crop, covering about 45 percent of the total area under organic cultivation. It is being grown by over 166767 cotton farmers in eight states, but chiefly Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Orissa,” says a senior official from Textile Exchange India.

India is also the largest exporter of organic cotton in the form of lint cotton, yarn, and garment. Lint cotton and yarn are exported to China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan while organic cotton garments are exported to the USA, European Union and other countries.

Industry experts peg 91,000 Metric tonnes (MT) of organic cotton was exported in 2019.

Recent Initiative

In October 2020, when Textiles Minister Smriti Irani launched the ‘Kasturi’ brand name for Indian cotton she also said that the government is working on a phased introduction of a certification system for organic cotton across the entire value chain.

At a virtual event organized by the Confederation of Indian Textile Industries, Cotton Corporation of India and the Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council, Textiles Secretary Ravi Capoor said that certain ‘markers’ have already been developed in conjunction with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) for branding Indian organic cotton, and it is in the last stages of finalization.

This is a great step for future-proofing the fortunes of the organic cotton industry.

To ensure that organic cotton actually makes its way into the final product, all steps in the journey from the farm gate to the gin, spinner, fabric mill and product manufacturer must be certified. Only then the organic claim can be authenticated.

Currently, for growing organic cotton in India, the standards of the National Programme on Organic Production (NPOP) are being adopted. For textile processing, however, private standards Global Organic Textiles Standards (GOTS) and Organic Content Standards (OCS) of the Textile Exchange are being used.

Currently, APEDA has developed and launched the standards for organic textiles and is in the process of accreditation from certification bodies.

When implemented it will expectedly bump up farmer income as certified organic products is a stamp of surety to sway wary buyers. Also, it opens up higher-income options for farmers can reap.

Moreover, industry experts say that the current organic certification process from NPOP is long-drawn, especially for smaller farmers, and the wait can sometimes be up to three years therefore certification system for organic cotton across the value chain will go a long way.

Need for green cultivation

The call for sustainable wear has never been louder, and it is progressively encouraging people to make easy switches when they do buy something new, such as organic cotton.

It can make a real difference as cotton is known to be a notoriously thirsty crop. Cultivating organic cotton on the other hand uses techniques that help to conserve water. Organic soil requires less irrigation as 80 percent of the land producing organic cotton is located in areas that are predominantly rainfed.

Organic cotton, therefore, reduces water consumption by more than 80 percent than conventionally grown cotton. Besides, no toxic chemicals are used in the growing of organic cotton. It doesn’t damage the soil while conventional cotton uses about 16 percent of the world’s insecticides and 7 percent of pesticides.

Also, Organic cotton has less impact on the air as it produces around 46 percent less CO2 and uses 62 percent less energy.

“The current cultivation initiatives worldwide are on the lines of developing a portfolio of new cotton cultivars with not only improved agronomic performance (e.g., yield, yield stability, tolerance against drought, flooding, pest, and diseases, easy picking) and high fiber quality and good ginning outturn, but also with high resilience towards climate change and changing weather patterns,” says a senior official of Organic Cotton Accelerator, a global multi-stakeholder organization fully dedicated to organic cotton.

For the farmer

The significantly growing demand for organic cotton from main consumer markets like the United States, EU, Japan, and China, even when market share is still small has been prompting farmers to switch to eco-farming to grow cotton using bio-fertilizers and pesticides manufactured from medicinal plants.

While there are still hurdles such as non-availability of seeds, lack of input agencies, poor market links for organic farming there are good price realisation plusses too.

Even though yields from organic farming are lower than by using Genetically Modified (GM) seeds, the cost of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are nil. This negligible input cost makes it a profitable business.

Over the last few years, organic cotton farmers have seen an income increase of over 25 percent compared to conventional farmers in the same areas. The scope for use of organic cotton is also increasing in India.

Newer horizons

Like in many sectors, the global corona virus pandemic has adversely impacted the entire value chain of the textile industry right from farmers to traders/exporters, given the lockdown and the subsequent phased restrictions, migration of laborers, supply-chain disruptions among others.

However, it has also opened new windows of opportunity with the government looking at prospects in emerging fields like personal protection equipment (PPE) where cotton can be leveraged.

In fact, according to trade bodies while four-fifths of the demand for organic cotton comes from major retailers and brands, but, given the pandemic situation, there has been a rising demand from the medical textile sector – both domestic and overseas.

The spike in demand for surgical gowns, masks, PPE kits, and others, have pushed up prices of organic cotton by nearly 8 percent to 12 percent in the past two months and the prices are likely to remain firm there for a while. This is because the sale of organic cotton and yarn has increased significantly but supplies are low with the ginners.

Also, prices have increased by over 15 percent to Rs 210 per kg for export quality 30 carded yarn with high demand for organic cotton coming from Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Shampa Bahadur has been a business journalist for more than two decades. She has written for Business India, PTI Media TransAsia and India Infrastructure Publication Ltd among others. She has also written coffee table books. She can be reached at shampa@indoasiancommodities.in

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