Industry Insights

Transitional Cotton

June 4, 2021
the Editorial Team
Person picking cotton
It typically takes three years for a farmer to transition to growing organic cotton, and getting certified may take a few more, depending on the farmer's financial standing. But what happens to the transitional yields produced in the three years that it takes for a farmer to transition completely? Read on to learn how transitional cotton could pave a better way for a sustainable denim future.

Between fake organic cotton coming from India and the Xinjiang Cotton dispute in China, brands and manufacturers are struggling to find alternatives in their supply chains.

The case for organic agriculture and its benefits are clear. With climate change, organic agriculture and its regenerative practices can help with capturing up to 100 per cent of current global emissions. However, one of the biggest opportunities to make organic agriculture mainstream lies in supporting 'transitional cotton' programs that enable farmers through the years of conversion to organic methods and in turn securing certification.

Supporting a 'transitional cotton' program is a way for brands to catalyse impactful business models - where the risk and responsibility is not the sole burden of the farmer.

Why Should You Support Transitional Cotton?

By incorporating in-conversion fibers into supply chains, brands can ensure that future organic volumes are available to meet growing demand.

A 2019 study led by researchers from the University of Twente found that organic agriculture can help improve 8 of the 17 globally agreed on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus, affecting how we deal with climate change, prevent biodiversity loss and achieve zero hunger and clean water for all. However, the economics of growing organic cotton are highly skewed.

Cotton is one of the world's oldest known fibres, yet less than one per cent of it is grown organically. Despite awareness increasing among consumers about the multitude of benefits of organic fibres, suppliers worldwide find it difficult to source organic cotton. When they do, it can be costly — when it should be the opposite.

Farmers need the financial incentive to undergo the costs of converting to organic practices and certification. One proven strategy to support the years of conversion is to blend a percentage of transitional fibre in a key program. Doing so will increase both the supply and demand for organic production while having a minimal price impact on the final products.

Cotton In Conversion: What Does It Take?

Transitioning production to organic takes about three years, and is a continuous process of change from conventional methods to an organic management system until the land is qualified for certification under global standards.

During the transitional period, certification bodies conduct audits on an annual basis according to the international standards. If the farm meets the requirements, a 'Scope Certification (SC)' is issued for the second and third year on transitional crops. Even in this case the yield of the first year is not certified, but is only audited for reporting purposes.

The yield from the third year of this process is considered an in-conversion output, with exceptions being made in certain parts of the world. For example, in Australia, depending on the farm/ farmers performance, year 3 crops may be considered as organic.

Fake Organic Cotton

In India, the GOTS discovered fake certificates and QR codes. Thus, resulting in a partial ban on Indian Organic Cotton for the United States until distributors meet their strict requirements. Unfortunately, Indian farmers will have to pay the price.

With Organic Cotton high in demand, farmers are facing challenges in the shift to organic farming, including:

  • A decline in yields by 20 to 30 per cent during the three-year transition period;
  • A reduction in income; and
  • A burdensome certification process, especially for farmers who lack education and financial support.

What's Next

Currently Pakistan does not produce organic cotton for commercial use.

The developmental impact this will have on Pakistan's agriculture is significant. Because organic farming does not require chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the living conditions of participating farmers' will improve. Farmers will  no longer need to purchase costly agrochemicals, which will reduce their financial burden.

Giving them the opportunity and supporting their transition keeps farmers and their families safe.  It also means farmers can grow more than one crop, which supplements their food and income. Further, it reduces their exposure to toxic chemicals in the field, their food and water supply.

The economics of the cotton trade has significantly changed in the past decade. The denim industry wants to move forward and account for their products' social and environmental impact. In that case, we must find a way to utilise organic cotton in transition (cotton grown by the farmers during the transition phases).

Because of climate change, poor infrastructures and a lack of transparency on developing nations' regulations, it falls on private enterprises rely on these farmers to uplift them. Everything we do at Neela serves to benefit the planet and her people.