THE road from local cotton fields to textile products in the stores of global brands and retailers around the world may be ‘long and winding’.

But Pakistan can tread this road more briskly than its regional rivals by supporting cultivation of ‘better cotton’, or conventional cotton produced by using sustainable and environment-friendly farming practices.

Better cotton programme being implemented by the WWF-Pakistan with the help of Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a programme launched jointly by major global brands and retailers, United Nations Environment Programme and groups like WWF, since 2010 is expanding and its share in the country’s cotton output rising.

“The project launched in Bahawalpur in 1999 on an experimental basis to promote/cultivate sustainable cotton has now expanded to seven cotton growing districts - five in Punjab and two in Sindh. This year we are working with 8000 farmers and hope to produce 400,000 bales of better cotton, double the number of bales produced last year,” says Makhdoom Arif, a WWF official in Bahawalpur who has implemented the project.

WWF is the BCI’s project implementing partner in Pakistan.

Globally, BCI is working with around 150,000 farmers in Brazil, India, Pakistan, West and Central Africa, up from 68,000 a year ago.

It is also piloting projects with China and responding to the interest expressed in growing better cotton in many other countries.

“The results of the project are very encouraging,” he contends. The farmers joining this sustainable cotton project used 45 per cent less water and 39 per cent less fertilisers to save their input costs and increase their margins by 20-25 per cent, he adds.

The reduction in the use of chemicals and water has not affected the farmers’ output at all and helped them found ready buyers for their product. Additionally, he claims, the implementation of the programme has pushed school enrolment in Bahawalpur alone by 15 per cent in one year as better social practices discourage use of child labour in cotton cultivation.

Arif says the encouraging results have been achieved only by training the growers and introducing them to sustainable management and cultivation practices and decent work values. “We have not made any major intervention. We have just told the farmers to use the chemicals and water according to their needs,” he says.

Cultivation of better cotton will also develop linkages between farmers and retailers and brands.

“The supply chain component of the Better Cotton System is designed to allow for better cotton produced by a farmer to be available to interested retailers. The system and procedures need to be auditable and linkable to traceability systems that extend through the entire supply chain in order to connect supply with demand,” according to BCI.

The European Union (EU) in April launched a programme to support development of a sustainable cotton supply chain from the farm to the final product — including links with leading retailers and brands. The four-year scheme called SPRING (sustainable cotton production in Pakistan ginning SMEs) will be implemented by WWF.

The project will help ginners develop links to producers of better cotton and obtain soft credit for technology up-gradation to encourage efficient and sustainable practices.

Major global retailers and brands, which between themselves share 80 per cent of international textile and clothing trade have already announced to use better cotton for all their products by 2020 as consumers preference in Europe and the United States shifts to products made from sustainable cotton.

This means Pakistan will have to move faster to adopt sustainable cotton cultivation practices to increase or maintain its share in the world textile trade, the WWF official warns. “Better cotton can be a vehicle to achieve much greater penetration in Europe and the United States where big retailers are interested to expand their existing better cotton initiatives,” he says.

He, however, says it is not possible WWF to reach all the growers in the country, train them in sustainable farm practices and bring home to them the importance of sustainable better cotton for their own livelihood and the economy.

“If we don’t want to be left behind, the government will have to take measures to provide policy support to the project and line departments to take it from where we leave. In this task associations like Aptma, representing the textile industry, also need to move to help the farmers shift to better cotton,” asserts Arif.

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