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The Aid by Trade Foundation’s cotton conference: from carbon sequestration to regenerative agriculture and technology

By Simone Preuss


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Christian Barthel, Sanjay Gupta, Shivani Gupta, Arindama Banerjee, R.R. Vinod and Jean-Claude Talon (left to right) discussing the role of artificial intelligence in the cotton supply chain. Credits: FashionUnited

At the annual conference of the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) from 11th to 13th March in Mumbai, India, around 100 experts, researchers and specialists from all over the world came together to discuss current challenges and solutions in the field of sustainable cotton and textile production. This year's event focussed on innovative and digital solutions for building transparent and sustainable supply chains. “We need innovation for sustainable solutions in the cotton industry - this is the key to greater efficiency and responsibility for a more resilient future for cotton,” said AbTF managing director Tina Stridde in her welcome address. She also emphasised the synergy of tradition plus innovation.

Tina Stridde during the welcome address. Credits: FashionUnited

It was no coincidence that the annual conference was held in India for the first time - in addition to the successful Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) cotton standard, the new Regenerative Cotton Standard is to be expanded in African countries such as Tanzania and, above all, in India. Christian Barthel, responsible for business development at the Atakora development organisation, pointed out that India has always supported the CmiA standard, for example at the first CmiA workshop in Coimbatore in 2017.

Keynote speaker Lalit Kumar Gupta, chairman and managing director of the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI), referred to India's long cotton tradition, the country's rich cultural heritage and the extensive cotton growing areas: “Cotton is woven into the fabric of our existence,” said Gupta. This often comes at a significant cost to the environment, which is why he referred to the transition to sustainable practices, as well as respect for human rights and fair pay. “All of this is necessary,” he emphasised.

Cotton - the white gold. Credits: FashionUnited

AbtF representatives then introduced the organisation, which is currently active in eleven sub-Saharan African countries with 20 cotton partnerships and includes a total of 900,000 farmers and 1.7 million hectares of land. “It starts with the herders/farmers and continues via the ginners that supply the raw material," said Alexandra Perschau, responsible for Standards & Outreach at AbTF, outlining the sphere of influence. “The sustainable fibres then go to brands and retailers who pay a licencing fee, which is then reinvested in training, training materials, impact measurement and social community projects, for example. The costs of certification are borne by the Aid by Trade Foundation,” said Perschau. The standards are verified at regular intervals and compliance is monitored. “We learn from the monitoring results and ultimately it becomes clear which claims one can and cannot make about a product.”

Training material by Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) Credits: Aid by Trade Foundation

The CmiA standard rests on four pillars - in addition to the sustainability mantra Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, management is also included. It also commits to not using child labour, creating humane working conditions (including at the ginning stage) and promoting biodiversity and sustainable water management.

Inka Sachse, an expert in regenerative agriculture and soil health at the Aid by Trade Foundation, explained differences between CmiA and the new Regenerative Cotton Standard. For example, in addition to a clear focus on regenerative agriculture, the new standard emphasises a more active involvement of farming communities and opening up to other geographies (such as India), meaning it is not limited to Africa. The CmiA requirements are still necessary for ginneries as they are not part of the RCS.

Inka Sachse, Aid by Trade Foundation. Credits: FashionUnited

Gerlind Bäz, project manager for supply chain management at Cotton made in Africa, emphasised the need for transparency in supply chains: “Knowing the source of their materials will be a focal point for brands and retailers, as they are affected by legal regulations such as supply chain acts and the Modern Slavery Act. They need to know their supply chains in detail, for instance where their CmiA cotton comes from.”

She referred to the HIP (Hard Identity Preserved) cotton tracking system, which has been in effect for five years and is a growing network. With 48 spinning mills, 20 percent of them in India already work according to this system, which means less bureaucracy and manual work and makes fraud or the manipulation of data more difficult.

First day focussed on regenerative agriculture, climate change and cotton cultivation

The first day continued with topics such as regenerative agriculture, measures to adapt to climate change and new insights into important innovations and technologies in cotton cultivation. One of the highlights of the day was Keshav Kranthi's presentation: the chief scientist from the International Cotton Advisory Council (ICAC) shed light on the role of cotton in regenerative agriculture and explained why it is “the unsung hero of climate change”. “Of the food that plants make, 20 to 30 percent goes back into the soil. This so-called rhizodeposition allows liquid sugars to go into the soil via the roots. There are more than 8 billion microbes in a tablespoon of healthy soil, more than there are people on earth," said Kranthi, quoting the World Food Organisation. “These soil microbes are the real doctors,” he added.

Keshav Kranthi, International Cotton Advisory Council. Credits: FashionUnited

“We lose 24 billion tonnes of topsoil every year and India in particular is threatened by extreme forms of degradation. There is an imbalance with synthetic fertilisers, which means they have a negative impact on life forms, such as microbes. But they need food all year round, so we should offer them organic matter, such as organic mulch and compost, so that the soil can regenerate and become healthy and agriculture can become self-sustaining.”

Kranthi then spoke about sequestration, that is the binding of carbon dioxide in the soil, which we need more of. “Most of the CO2 goes back into the atmosphere,” said the scientist. He explained how cotton emits around 1.6 tonnes of CO2 per hectare on a global annual average, but binds 11.21 tonnes per hectare from the atmosphere via the various parts of the plant (fibres, seeds, stems and roots). “Cotton plants produce cellulose fibres and cellulose is carbon dioxide plus water plus fibres, so carbon dioxide is captured in water.”

“The unsung hero of climate change”

Cotton stalks can bind 5.5 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year and can be processed into furniture, pellets and briquettes. Fibres can bind 1.29 tonnes and can be processed into textiles and clothing. Because of this sequestration, Kranthi sees cotton as the “unsung hero of climate change”. “However, we have been unfair to cotton,” said Kranthi, as sequestration is not addressed in studies or covered in the Higg Index, for example.

“Cotton plants can easily become a carbon sink and climate-positive plant through regenerative agriculture,” continued Kranthi. He pointed out that the majority of a T-shirt's CO2 emissions are not generated during the plant's growth phase, ginning, processing or even production, but during the household wash or in the dryer. In a comparison of different types of fabric, he showed that cotton ranks second to last (ahead of flax) behind nylon, acrylic, polyester, polypropylene, viscose and silk in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Adam Cobb, The Soil Food Web Credits: FashionUnited

Kranthi concluded by emphasising the importance of soil health for crop health (“Fertiliser doesn't just affect the soil, it affects everything above the soil”), which was a perfect segue into the talk by Adam Cobb of The Soil Food Web School. The science communicator gave insights into the importance of soil health for sustainable cotton farming and began his talk by differentiating between dirt and soil: “Dirt is what sticks to the bottom of our shoes - it's not an ecosystem. Soil is an

eco system

To understand the difference, put first dirt and then soil in water: While dirt will fall apart, soil will stay together because it is resilient.

, which contains carbon, organic matter and living organisms“, said Cobb.

“I am going to say something that is a little controversial,” he continued. “Much of what is being done at agricultural universities is about ‘dirt farming’, not ‘soil farming’." Dirt farming is not the future, however - it takes centuries to make good, healthy soil, but it can be over-farmed and depleted very quickly. “Humans are rapidly degrading soil health,” confirmed Cobb. He therefore advises tilling a field as little as possible to avoid physically disturbing the soil.

“If you farm with dirt, you have to put expensive products into that dirt. If you farm with soil, the roots can really shoot into the ground; cotton, for example, has the longest roots, with up to five metres. The healthier the soil, the higher the profitability," summed up Cobb.

Alais Ole Morindat, African People and Wildlife (APW). Credits: FashionUnited

Alais Ole Morindat from the African NGO African People and Wildlife (APW) explained how important the involvement of local communities is for the protection of wildlife and the effective implementation of projects. “Human wellbeing, wildlife abundance and environmental resilience - if you can create that, then there is a future,” stated the Maasai elder from Tanzania. For him, however, a bottom-up approach that involves the communities is of utmost importance: “We have solutions within our own context.”

Stefan Scherer from Geocledian then presented satellite-based remote sensing. This involves finding solutions for monitoring crops based on satellite and weather data. In her subsequent presentation, Daniela Castro Herrera dealt with the sequestration of carbon and how cotton farmers can capitalise on this. The senior consultant at Sustainable AG pointed out that farmers are currently not connected to the entire value chain. She discussed four ways to re-establish this connection: through carbon offsetting (currently the most common method), carbon investing, value chain interventions (such as financing climate protection projects) and action-oriented programmes.

A detailed map of available resources in a cotton growing area in Tanzania. Credits: African People and Wildlife

Jyoti Rupa Pujari, agricultura advisor at GIZ India, presented a GIZ digitalisation project on sustainability and value creation in agricultural cotton supply chains, which currently includes 200,000 farmers, 30 percent of whom are women. She referred to the fact that there are so many internet users in India who can utilise their mobile phones and Android apps such as “Cotton Doctor” to make informed decisions about cotton cultivation and obtain information about rainfall and upload and peruse pictures of plant pests. A panel discussion concluded the topic “How innovations and technology help farmers and measure impact”. During a subsequent “Walk and Talk”, visitors were able to find out about innovations such as PAN UK's T-MAPP, an app that can be used to collect information on pesticide poisoning in a sensitive and confidential manner.

Alexandra Perschau, Jyoti Rupa Pujari, Daniela Castro Herrera, Serge C. Danhounsi and Stefan Scherer (left to right) in a panel discussion concluding the first day. Credits: FashionUnited

The second day focussed on transparent and traceable supply chains. In addition to the currently increasing legal requirements for global textile production, the speakers also took a look into the future and highlighted the opportunities that artificial intelligence creates in the traceability of textiles. “It is not about producing more and more cotton any more, but to do it sustainably,” emphasised Subhra Sarkar, vice president technical service at manufacturer and cotton developer Welspun India Ltd. This production should be based on the three pillars of economic, environmental and social responsibility and “all people in the supply chain should be covered,” Sarkar demanded. He pointed out two interesting facts: That 75 percent of the world's cotton cultivation is unmapped and that global customers are no longer interested in “normal” cotton.

Technical assessment of cotton at the Wakefield lab in Mumbai. Credits: FashionUnited

Raw material developer Krishnamurthy Srinivasan's presentation focussed on the climate-positive agenda of his employer Ikea and the importance of transparency for globally operating companies. For him, it is important to make “farmers a visible part of the supply chain”, even though the cotton industry's supply chain is one of the most complex. Arindama Banerjee, associate director, client services and responsible sourcing from business assurance organisation LRQA (previously Elevate) then navigated the audience through the legal maze of global textile production. The organisation is based on the four pillars of inspection, assessment, advisory services and cyber security and works closely with brands and retailers on risk management.

Arindama Banerjee, LRQA Credits: FashionUnited

For her, due diligence means that companies own the systems they run. She explained how raw material standards such as CmiA and due diligence standards such as the OECD differ in terms of the type of framework, focus and objective, as well as areas of application. While the CmiA standard is a sustainable raw material standard and also includes management systems, it does not guarantee the implementation of sustainable practices or human rights due diligence in further processing. “Standards can have a supporting function and are a stepping stone to more responsible business practices. Even if they cannot guarantee anything - a violence-free supply chain, for example - they can still draw attention to gaps and communicate them to the target group (such as subcontractors, suppliers and buyers),” summarised Banerjee.

Haissata Kaba, Association Professionnelle des Sociétés Cotonnières de Côte d’Ivoire (APROCOT-CI) Credits: FashionUnited

Haissata Kaba, technical manager of the cotton association of the Ivory Coast (APROCOT-CI), used the example of her country to show how both the quality of cotton and its traceability can be improved. As the second largest producer of cotton in Africa, cotton plays an important economic role for the Ivory Coast and is a valued import good in manufacturing countries such as China, Bangladesh, Turkey, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Malaysia due to its good quality, colour and fibre length. Torsten Stau from the Rewe Group then explained how the Rewe Group was able to achieve complete traceability of CmiA cotton in the textile chain thanks to the Hard Identity Preserved (HIP) system. The aim now is to achieve this for all of the Group's private label products by 2025, which, according to Stau, will require the commitment of everyone involved.

Peter Wakefield, CEO of Wakefield Security Systems, also spoke about ensuring integrity through physical control in cotton supply chains, meaning that the cotton delivered also corresponds to the cotton that was ordered. “Tracking is hard because it goes through so many hands,” said Wakefield, “so there are different systems in place to check this at different stages of the supply chain from the ginnery to the ports and warehouses to the final destination. Whereas in the past, all the important information was mentioned on the side of a cotton bale using stencils, this is now all recorded digitally and one has lots more information. “However, this must be checked before it is entered,” warned Wakefield. He strongly advises that, despite the use of artificial intelligence and technology, physical inspections should not be abandoned. “You have to get your hands on the cotton.”

Experts can glean much from a manual check as done here at Cotton Green. Credits: FashionUnited

This sentiment was echoed by representatives from technology companies such as Textile Genesis and Direction Software LLP, who shared their experience of ensuring transparency and traceability in the supply chain through digital tools. The latter, for example, uses digital tokens and offers an industry-wide platform that includes support for suppliers and onboarding in ten languages.

Cotton was once trade here - an old trading hall at the location of the Indian Cotton Association in Mumbai. Credits: FashionUnited

Rounding off the cotton conference was an excursion to the headquarters of the Indian Cotton Association (ICA), which is located in the historically cotton-centred Cotton Green district in city’s southeast. An initial exchange of trade figures between the Indian hosts and industry representatives from Benin, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania - how much, how long, how high - in terms of (annual) yields and fibre length soon gave way to a more in-depth discussion. Common problems such as pests, water scarcity and declining soil health and thus yields soon melted the ice and made it clear that the cotton industry still needs sound expertise and intuition - despite digital support and AI - and not least personal exchange across borders in order to remain successful.

Shyam Makharia, Atul Ganatra, Arun Makharia and Vijay Shah of the Indian Cotton Association met participants of the AbTF cotton conference at their headquarters. Credits: FashionUnited

FashionUnited was invited to the conference by the Aid by Trade Foundation.

Aid by Trade Foundation
Cotton made in Africa