Cotton is failing to provide a profitable livelihood for small scale farmers

Cotton is failing to provide a profitable livelihood for small scale farmers

Speaking ahead of Fashion Revolution Day[1] on 24 April, Michael Gidney, Chief Executive of the Fairtrade Foundation, warns you can literally follow a terrible trail of neglect, abuse and poverty right back to the cotton fields.

Cotton is grown in more than 100 countries on 2.5 percent of the world’s arable land, and is one of the most significant crops in terms of land use after food grains and soya beans. It plays a major role in the economic and social welfare of developing and newly industrialised countries and is an especially important source of employment and income within East and Central Africa, India, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Real cotton prices – taking inflation into account – have fallen by 45 percent, from more than $3.00/kg in the 1960s to $1.73 in 2014. Yet Fairtrade Foundation research[i] shows that the cost of raw cotton makes up 10% or less of the retail price of a textile product so a relatively small increase in the price paid to cotton farmers could significantly improve their livelihoods with little impact on the retail price.

Gidney said: “The cotton industry faces a number of very serious challenges in its long-term sustainability – from the intensive used of hazardous chemicals to climate change and low cotton prices. As a result, cotton farmers are struggling to meet basic needs such as food, healthcare, school fees and tools. Even a small fall in cotton prices hits farmers hard.

“Buying clothing is only the last stage in a long chain that starts in the cotton fields.  We need to change the way we view fashion and reconnect with all the many people who work to bring us our clothes, because too many of them simply cannot make a living. Over the past twenty years, 285,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. The fact that prices continue to fall in the UK should be a wake-up call for shoppers: we need to keep asking companies about the people who make our clothes and ensure they are not paying the price of our high street bargains. Unless consumers and business are prepared to pay the true cost of our clothes, farmer poverty and tragedies such as Rana Plaza will continue.”

Cotton farmers are at the end of a long and complex supply chain in which they are virtually invisible and wield little power or influence. Government subsidies for cotton farmers in rich countries create a market with artificially low prices that poor farmers in developing countries are unable to compete in, amounting to an annual loss of income to African farmers of $250m.With high levels of illiteracy and limited land holdings, many cotton farmers live below the poverty line and are dependent on the middle men or ginners who buy their cotton, often at prices below the cost of production.

Farmers are currently facing rising costs of production, fluctuating market prices, decreasing yields and climate change along with food price inflation and food insecurity. In West Africa, cotton farmers rely on a smallholding of 2-5 hectares to provide the essential income for basic needs such as food, healthcare, school fees and tools.

More than 250,000 cotton farmer suicides have been recorded in India over the last 16 years in the largest wave of suicides in history. This has been blamed on a high level of indebtedness linked with the rising costs of GM cotton seeds, fertilisers and insecticides and declining yields.

Over 400,000 child workers, some of whom are bonded labourers paying off loans taken out by their parents, have been reported as working in the cottonseed industry. They suffer from health problems related to exposure to pesticides.

Michael Gidney will take part in a panel discussion tonight, Monday 20 April/ 19.00-20.30 – Fashion Revolution Day: Revolution in the making/ Screening Room/ £10/£8 concs and will talk about how Fairtrade can intervene on some of these issues.

For more information about Fairtrade cotton, visit You can download our press pack here .

– ENDS –

Eileen Maybin, Head of Media Relations, 020 7440 7686/07770 957 451,

Martine Parry, Media and PR Manager, 020 7440 7695,

Nicola Frame, Media and PR Manager, 020 7440 8597,

Anna Galandzij, Press Officer, 020 7440 7692,  


Notes to Editors

The Fairtrade Foundation is an independent certification body which licenses the use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on products which meet international Fairtrade standards. This independent consumer label appears on products to show that disadvantaged producers are getting a better deal from trade. Today, more than 1.5 million people – farmers and workers – across more than 74 developing countries benefit from the international Fairtrade system.
How Fairtrade works in cotton:
Fairtrade Minimum Price protects against volatile market prices
Fairtrade Premium for strategic investment (fertilisers, pesticides, fuel, yield and quality
Fairtrade Premium for community investment in essential infrastructure (healthcare, education, clean water)
Facilitates access to export markets
Access to training and capacity building
Environmentally friendly and long-term sustainable practices

Awareness of the FAIRTRADE Mark continues to be high in 2014, at a level of 78%. Estimated retail sales of Fairtrade products in 2013 exceeded £1.7 billion, a 12% increase on sales of £1.53 billion in 2012.

This Fashion Revolution Day we are asking everyone to:

  1. Take a selfie showing your label.
  2. Tag the brand and ask #whomademyclothes 
  3. Help make our message louder. Nominate 5 friends to do the same.

Tens of thousands of people across the globe did this last year and more are expected to take part in the campaign this April. Supporters in 67 countries worldwide are organizing activities to mark the day. High profile names who have already signed up include Livia Firth, Lily Cole, journalist Lucy Siegle, Jo Wood and many more.

Find out more at Like Fashion Revolution on Facebook at and follow @Fash_Rev on Twitter.

[1] The global campaign to bring everyone in the fashion value chain together to raise awareness of the true cost of fashion


Synthesis Report May 2011, Valerie Nelson and Sally Smith