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Primark's Sustainable Cotton Programme presents third-year results

Irish textile retailer Primark recently published the results of its Sustainable Cotton Programme, now in its third year, a partnership between the textile discounter, agricultural experts CottonConnect and Indian trade union Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). The numbers show the positive impact the programme has had on the quality of life of the female smallholder farmers: On average, the women were able to increase their income by 247 percent and use the profits for their farms, homes, their family's health and the education of their children.

“Before joining the programme, everything I knew about farming was from learning by doing. After three years of training I can now say that I’ve gained expert skills in growing cotton. As a result, my crops and profit have gone up and I am able to enjoy a better livelihood. Both my children are in education and I’ve been able to build a new house, buy a tractor and lay 18,000 feet of pipeline from the nearest canal to my fields. I have also been elected as village head and I’m looking to share my experience and encourage other women to consider the programme,” shares one of the participating women, Varsha Agola.

The programme trains the farmers in sustainable farming methods. According to the report, the three-year pilot has already trained 1,251 female smallholder farmers in the Indian state of Gujarat and in 2016, Primark extended the programme by 10,000 female smallholder farmers over the course of six years.

Currently, India is closely on China's heels as the second largest cotton producing country in the world. Women play a key role in cotton farming as they are responsible for 70 percent of planting of the crop and 90 percent of harvesting it according to the International Trade Centre (ITC). However, when it comes to wages, there is a big discrepancy: In rural India, women earn only 78 percent of what men earn for the same work. This fact contributes to India being at 130th place among 188 countries in the UN's Gender Inequality Index. Thus, gender inequality is one of the key challenges in terms of the country's development.

“Creating sustainable, long-lasting change in cotton-growing communities in India can be challenging. It is something that no one organisation can achieve alone. By partnering with Primark and SEWA, we’ve been able to achieve significant results for the programme farmers, their families and the broader community,” said CottonConnect CEO Alison Ward. “Key to the programme’s success was gaining the support of male elders and family members. In doing so, we’ve seen a real cultural shift - women’s voices are now heard and respected, and they are part of the decision-making process with their families and communities. We’ve seen what’s possible with a small group of just over 1,000 farmers, but it’s clear that this approach holds great potential. We’re looking forward to seeing the impact of the programme on our next intake of female smallholders,” added Ward.

SEWA has collaborated with a western brand and a specialist agricultural organisation for the first time and is happy with the programme's success as well: “From our experience working with rural poor women workers across India, we know that employment is the key to women’s economic empowerment and self-reliance, both economically and in terms of their decision-making ability… What’s most exciting is the impact the programme is having on not just the women farmers themselves, but the broader village community too,” stated SEWA leader Reema Nanavaty.

Sustainable cotton cultivation is not only beneficial for the farmers' economic situation but also for the environment. Especially in drought-prone Gujarat, the decrease in water consumption by 12.9 percent is a key factor. In addition, 40 percent less artificial fertilizers and 44 percent less pesticides were used. “Primark’s long-term ambition is to ensure all the cotton in our supply chain is sourced sustainably. We knew that to have maximum impact, the programme needed to be delivered by experts on the ground with local knowledge and expertise to engage with smallholders and their families,” said Primark’s ethical trade and environmental sustainability director Katharine Stewart.

Primark's Sustainable Cotton Programme was started in 2013 and was planned as a pilot project with a run time of three years, in which 1,251 female farmers were trained in sustainable cotton cultivation. In 2016, the programme was extended by additional 10,000 women and six years. The training and the support that the farmers receive by CottonConnect and SEWA experts on site is in the form of classroom teaching, training on the fields and study groups. It introduces them to sustainable farming methods and helps them develop basic business and life skills, which not only improves the women's income and empowerment, but also improves the quality of cotton yields.

Photo: Primark