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The Race to Accelerate Global Organic Cotton Production

By Sherrell Dorsey

Only 1 percent of all cotton produced in the world is organic. Despite the increasing demand from textile and apparel industries, production of organic cotton is on the decline and poses a tremendous risk to both the environment and the future of sustainably-produced fabrics.

Fortunately, there is a plan on the horizon to help change course and disrupt the industry as a whole. Enter the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) — a multi-stakeholder initiative spearheaded in 2013 by U.S. retailer Eileen Fisher and European brands C&A, H&M and Kering. Its purpose is to identify and fund interventions, strategies and new areas of development and opportunity to increase organic cotton production. 

Shona Quinn, sustainability leader for Eileen Fisher, contends that organic cotton production and innovation in the industry is critical to the future of sustainable apparel, namely her brand's commitment to consumers who are already seeking lifestyle changes that often begin and end with their clothing purchases.

“We’ve been supporting organic cotton for at least 10 years and supporting the work through textile exchanges,” Quinn shared with 3p. “However, organic cotton hasn’t gained traction in the market or at the field level. As our business grows, we are creating goals of wanting to support 100 percent organic cotton in our line. But first, we need to make sure we have access to that fiber.”

Quinn and her team came to the table with their competitors a few years ago to help the industry grow as a whole. In 2015, supply-chain consultancy NewForesight provided a detailed business case-study outlining a development strategy and opportunities for the accelerator to coordinate investments to improve farmer production and transparency while reducing risks of low-integrity organic cotton.

The accelerator, which incubates this year across select farms in India, is not without its challenges. Quinn pointed to barriers the accelerator hopes to address and analyze as it relates to economic mobility issues that highly influence the way farmers go about producing cotton.

“What’s built into the farmer’s DNA is that a higher yield creates more money. The transition from GMOs to organic will require that we understand and provide knowledge to farmers — many of whom come from several generations of family farmers — re-orienting them with ancestral cotton-growing knowledge combined with new technology innovation,” Quinn said.

The OCA plans to set the standard for organic farmer training by establishing a central farmer curriculum, knowledge transfer, and best known agricultural and business practices to improve effectiveness. In addition to providing training curriculum, the OCA will create a distribution system to reach farmers with 100 percent organic seeds to protect the integrity of cotton crops.

Quinn also pointed to the opportunities for the accelerator to help advance farmers’ business acumen as a way to influence growth of the organic cotton industry while addressing some of the challenges farmers face. Existing traditional loan programs and investment initiatives put pressure on the farmer to produce and pay back the loan. Challenges arise when yields turn out to be less than expected. When farmers are unable to they pay back the loan, both the farmer’s business and family are at risk.

The OCA’s established financing model will be made available to farmers in the form of revolving loans. The approximate numbers of available financing dollars and farmer repayment terms have yet to be revealed.  

The OCA is set to launch this year in a two-year prototyping phase where selected farmers across India will participate during the incubation period -- with the goal of increasing strategies to scale organic cotton production through 2018.

Core activities of the accelerator will include:

  • Establish and manage an accelerator fund that will unlock financing for farmers and processors

  • Enhance traceability and transparency across the cotton supply chain.

  • Raise the profile of organic cotton among consumers, brands and other stakeholders through compelling communication and services

“Just as a society, and as a brand member of this stakeholder group, it is important that we continue to build the inner connections between people, planet and the economy," Quinn said. "It can happen in the fashion industry. This accelerator program ensures that it does."

Image credit: Organic Cotton Accelerator

Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

Read more stories by Sherrell Dorsey