Time to cotton on

Climate change has definitely been grabbing the ‘green headlines’ in recent times.

But those working with linen – from manufacturers through to suppliers and laundries, plus hotels and leisure facilities – have been keeping more than a watching brief on the future of one of the biggest crops in the world, cotton.

Janice Raycroft reports.

This is an ethical minefield: a balancing act between ensuring poor farmers growing cotton as a cash crop are properly rewarded and mill workers are not abused, while at the same time not cutting off the money some need to simply keep their families alive. It’s thought there are 300 million cotton farmers spread across the planet, mostly in developing countries.

There is the very serious matter of child exploitation and forced labour, with some countries and regions operating such systems as a historical and cultural norm. And that’s all before we’ve come to what are certainly ‘eco toxic’ issues on the agenda: use of pesticides and levels of water usage during processing.

Just as plastic became an international campaign issue, cotton has had its moments and is increasingly coming under focus.

There have been plenty of stories about how some cheap tee shirts make their way from sweat shops to high street outlets. The complexities for our industry’s linen manufacturers and suppliers when scrutinising the supply chain from field to top quality final product for hotels and restaurants are obvious. It’s great to find that many UK operations are now leading the way when it comes to ethical and ecological matters.

They are working not just with the farmers and local factories, but with NGOs and political leaders all over the world to ensure the finest cotton they use doesn’t have a dirty back story. You also discover that the best British-based suppliers have onsite employees who become champions, committed to helping to drive the best possible ethical practice, sometimes thousands of miles away.

They include people like Jade Ainsworth, formerly a trainee solicitor, but currently working in the marketing team of the Ruia Group (Richard Haworth) in Manchester, a business at the forefront of supporting international initiatives. The learning curve and fascination with ethical and environmental standards have led Ainsworth away from the law to what she hopes will be a lifelong career path.

“Just as plastic became an international campaign issue, cotton has had its moments and is increasingly coming under focus”

“It’s a long-term project for the industry, not just me,” she says. “Ruia is committed to transparency right through the supply chain, not just the mills but all the way back to the ground where the cotton journey begins. And it’s very complex – there’s everything from working hours to worker representation, wage rates, checking there are no discriminatory practices.

“You are promoting projects for sustainable cotton, dealing with NGOs, helping to lobby governments, perhaps holding pilot workshops with mills in countries such as Pakistan.”

She says Ruia’s longstanding relationship with many suppliers is helping to find routes through what can be tricky paths, because it means there is a bedrock of trust on which to build. This is particularly important in countries where what we might see as modern slavery issues are considered normal practice. An example is Uzbekistan where cotton is grown under government order and whole communities are required to leave their usual jobs for a few weeks to pick the crop.

Ruia is dealing with political sensitivities and nuances across the world while not wishing to damage the vital livelihoods of workers. Local mills can be cautious when asked where the cotton is grown, fearing that the end supplier wants to go direct to the farmer and perhaps move production, when actually it’s just a case of vetting the supply chain.

Ainsworth’s role fits in with Ruia’s business philosophy which encompasses the wellbeing of suppliers, stakeholders and the environment and also operates a formal policy against child labour. They constantly look for ways to reduce environmental impact and projects include sourcing Fairtrade certified cot ton, minimising waste production and recycling wherever possible.

At Royal Warrant holder Mitre Linen they recently introduced the Mitre Eco range, a collection of bed linen, towels, robes, duvets and pillows. Purchasing manager Phillip James says: “The launch follows months of research and development to create a range from ethically produced recycled and natural products that do not compromise biodiversity and eliminate the exposure of pesticides and chemicals to the cotton farmer.”

Bed linen, towels and bathrobes are made from 100 per cent organic cotton which protects local ecosystems and farmers whilst still providing cool, crisp comfort. They are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, so guaranteed to be free from potential skin irritants. GOTS is a worldwide textile processing standard for organic fibres, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. The aim of the standard is to ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end user.

UNCTAD, the UN Conference on Trade & Development, organised a study tour to Nagpur, India, in January as part of its ‘Promoting cotton by-products in Eastern and Southern Africa’ project. This allowed 30 participants from Africa to learn from the successful Indian experience of using cotton by-products to create businesses and jobs and reduce pollution.

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