Pakistan Mills Push Better Cotton

The Better Cotton Initiative aims to transform cotton production worldwide by developing it as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

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LAHORE, Pakistan — The Better Cotton Initiative is growing in Pakistan.

This story first appeared in the August 13, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

BCI, which aims to transform cotton production worldwide by developing it as a sustainable mainstream commodity, began in 2010-11 with farmers in Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan producing their first harvests. BCI works with a diverse range of stakeholders to promote measurable and continuing improvements for the environment, farming communities and the economies of cotton-producing areas.

Strong supply-chain linkages through the BCI membership — which is open to brands and mills throughout the supply chain, from ginning and yarn producers to fabric and garment manufacturers — assures market access for the product and provides incentive to the members. To encourage production, IKEA, an original sponsor of the program, has pledged to carry only 100 percent Better Cotton products by 2015. Other companies such as Levi Strauss, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Wal-Mart Stores and Adidas have pledged to follow suit by 2020.

Under the BCI banner, several best practices for the cultivation of cotton have been adopted, such as drought-resistant cotton seed varieties, and new techniques of soil conditioning, crop rotation, sowing, tillage irrigation and pest control. Reducing the human cost, pesticide exposure is limited, child and bonded labor is prohibited, and for the female workers who make up a majority of Pakistan’s cotton pickers and are vulnerable to exploitation by male land owners, a more dignified livelihood is provided.

Better Cotton is cheaper for the farmer to grow due to lower input costs of fertilizer, pesticides and water, said BCI secretary Bilal Israel Khan. Soil is first organically treated, then fertilized to treat remaining deficiencies, saving 40 percent through lower usage of pesticides and higher crop output. It’s estimated that 90 percent of the country’s pesticide is used in growing cotton.

In addition, improved irrigation methods, such as alternate furrow watering, reduces fresh water usage by 30 percent. Otherwise, as much as 4,500 liters of water can be used to produce 1 kilogram of conventionally grown cotton, equivalent to a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. These savings in input costs translate into an 11 percent increase in farmers’ gross margins and allow them to keep prices for their Better Cotton crop on par with standard cotton. Less availability and smaller orders means, however, that BCI cotton currently sells at about 3 percent above regular cotton.

“This is not a premium, but a viable commodity product that must have cost parity with cotton produced by conventional methods,” said Shafiq Ahmed, regional coordinator of BCI.

BCI connects harvested Better Cotton to be delivered to participating ginners. BCI field workers also instruct pickers to gather cotton from the plant bottom up to get cleaner cotton with less leaves, reducing trash in cotton.

BCI yarn production is increasing at Nishat Spinning in Lahore, to 15 to 20 percent this year from 10 percent last year, said general manager Maqsood Ahmad. Nishat Mills is one of the largest composite textile groups in the country.

Umer Shah, general manager of Nishat Dyeing and Finishing in Lahore, which produces woven bottom-weight fabric, said brands that are more socially responsible make it mandatory to use Better Cotton in their fabric.

“For example, Levi’s for its Dockers brand requires that 20 to 25 percent Better Cotton be used in the fabric it buys from Nishat, though it is at a 5 percent premium,” Shah said. “They are our largest customer for this product.”

“The real benefits of BCI are neither the quality nor the price, but to prevent the wastage of natural resources,” said Ahmad.

Pakistan is the fifth-largest producer of cotton in the world, with 3.1 million hectares of farmland under cotton cultivation, producing 10 percent of the world’s cotton, said Ahmed. It is also the world’s second-largest Better Cotton producer, with five projects under way in the cotton-growing provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

According to BCI estimates, in 2012, 59,000 farmers here who met the BCI requirements and were licensed produced 215,000 metric tons of Better Cotton. Brazil is the world’s largest producer with a harvest of 295,000 metric tons, with India and China rounding out the top four.

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