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WWF and Marks and Spencer (M&S) started working together on sustainable cotton in India in 2009, partnering to support farmers to develop ways of producing cotton that has a lower environmental impact. In short, a way of producing ‘better cotton’, under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

In this blog, Phil Townsend – sustainable raw material specialist at M&S – talks to us about his recent visit to the cotton fields in Warangal, India, and discusses the many individuals and groups who contribute to making cotton, better!

Why is M&S working on cotton?

Phil: M&S is a leading international retailer, specialising in high quality food and fashion products. Cotton is therefore one of the most significant raw materials that we use. To give some background, In 2007, M&S launched Plan A, the company-wide strategy to protect the planet by sourcing responsibly, reducing waste and helping communities, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer M&S originally made 100 commitments to achieve in five years, but it has since evolved to Plan A 2020, which consists of 100 new, revised and existing commitments – including sourcing sustainable cotton under the Better Cotton Initiative.

Cotton is a hugely important material, making up nearly half of the fibre used to make clothes and other textile products globally. At the same time, it plays a major role in supporting the economies and social welfare of developing countries. It provides a livelihood for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small-scale farmers. It’s therefore incredibly important for us that M&S plays an active, significant role in helping cotton to be produced in better ways and reducing the environmental impact related to its production.

What were your expectations of the trip?

Phil: The aim of the WWF – M&S partnership is to produce cotton using less water, fewer chemicals and with a lower carbon footprint. The project involves working with over 18,500 BCI-certified farmers on over 20,000ha of cotton fields across nearly 250 villages. It was in 2010 that the first harvest of better cotton was produced and the project has gone from strength to strength.
This was my first trip to the project site, and, after working on it remotely for several years, I was very eager to see it for myself and meet the many people involved! It was a chance for me to see one of the key areas that M&S sources its cotton from to make the wide range of garments we sell.

Tell me what it was like in the field

Phil: One of the amazing things about this project is the number of different people involved in making it a success. There is the WWF team – both in the UK, which oversees the project, and also the team in India, which focuses on implementing the project and tracking its progress. Then there are the local partners, like MARI (a leading NGO in India), which help establish and strengthen farmer cooperatives; and KVK (the Indian Council of Agricultural Research), the science and research centre which provides education and support to farmers to help improve their crop management. And, of course, all the field facilitators, cooperatives and the farmers themselves, without whom the project would not be possible. The BCI works with all these groups at each stage in the cotton production chain. For me, seeing how the BCI model had motivated all the different groups to deliver amazing results in the field made the trip so worthwhile.

What benefits have you seen from the project?

Phil: When you arrive at the project sites and speak to the farmers, the benefits that the project is bringing become very clear. Farmers told me of the Farmer telephone helpline that has been set up by KVK, one of the local partners, to deliver instant technical support to them for a whole range of queries, including guidance on farm management practices. From this helpline, a weekly newsletter is published to help others understand more about the most common questions asked. I saw various methods of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), including pheromone traps for boll worm, insect paper traps, refuge crops and others, all of which are more environmentally friendly alternatives to chemical pesticides. Importantly, most farmers in the project benefited from yield increases, which have meant that their net income has increased both from more cotton crop and less expenditure on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. A win-win for people and planet!

So, what next for the project and for M&S?

Phil: The project will move towards its final phase next year, but the lasting ambition of this partnership is to ensure the Better Cotton programme becomes self-sustaining by strengthening the cooperative societies formed through the project. It will also ensure responsibilities to comply with the Better Cotton Standards System are handed over responsibly. The skills and expertise of both WWF and M&S can help famers develop a strong sense of purposeful, impactful and successful business practices that are positive for both people and nature.

This project is a great example of different partners working towards a common goal to produce better cotton and this is why it is one of the most successful and impactful sustainable raw material stories. M&S originally committed to source 25% of its cotton sustainably by 2020, but with the enormous progress made in projects like this, it sourced 32% sustainable cotton 2014-15. Therefore, M&S has increased its target to 70%. Here goes!

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