Rethinking cotton for the common good

Marzia Lanfranchi, founder of the web docu-series Cotton Diaries, was working on sustainable cotton strategy for a midsize UK retailer when a customer’s tweet sent her whole team into a mild panic spiral. Its question—“Where do you get your cotton from?”—was simple enough. The discomfort it provoked about how to respond? That was a little more complicated.

It’s a memory she shared candidly in her May 2018 presentation at the #TCBL_2018 event in Prato, Italy, and one that’s informed her mission with Cotton Diaries, which made its online debut in late March 2019. The series—with its slogan “sparking change from crop to cloth”—aims to create shifts within the cotton industry, one well-told story at a time. Such stories help raise public consciousness of the industry, reminding half-informed consumers not only that there are people and processes behind products, but that the conditions of both can—and must—be improved.

The Diaries are reflective of larger collaborative efforts to overhaul the sector, a steady, boll-by-boll process best exemplified by businesses and ginning mills in Greece that have made or are making the move from conventional to more sustainable cotton. (The general public has a misguided, if innocent, conception that because conventional cotton is a natural fiber, it’s reasonably sustainable, not “a disaster,” as Marzia describes it).

Emmanouela Kouroudi, Vice President of Thrakika Ginning Mills in Komotini, Thrace, Greece, didn’t need any convincing when she met Marzia through the TCBL network and the two discovered they had complementary, cotton-centered missions. Kouroudi has been a key force in her own company’s pivot to sustainable cotton, as well as its launch of the Certified Sustainable Fibermax (CSF) Program, which has been applied to a number of farms and mills throughout Greece—Thrakika the first among them. “There’s a value-chain demand to work with cotton that has exceptional characteristics,” she explains, “separating it from ordinary, conventional cotton.” Strategic separation is necessary: as Marzia noted in a recent phone interview, “If we went down the United Nations’ list of Sustainable Development Goals, I could explain one by one why [conventional] cotton affects each of them in a negative way.”

As the CSF program has steadily gained traction throughout Greece, with 236 farmers involved as of the program’s last report (up from 54 in 2015), visibility on the international market has also grown, particularly after Kouroudi participated in the TCBL Conference in Prato, Italy, and the BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) Conference in Brussels. This growing popularity isn’t a result of companies making cursory eco-friendly changes, either, but of genuine shifts in business mindsets and consumer priorities: “Demand for cotton produced with sustainable farming practices is constantly increasing,” Emmanouela notes. Indeed, the final products it helps bring forth are high-quality, first and foremost, and not just green-for-gain: Argyris Sarridis, general manager of Varvaressos European Spinning Mills, another CSF program participant, shares that the uniformity, strength, and technical properties that the program ensures in his yarns allow him produce “new value-added products for our business and the end consumer.”

Emmanouela confirms that CSF is “the main project” Thrakika is focusing on currently, and the central component of their broader Cotton+ initiative, which takes aim at phasing out “disastrous” conventional practices by promoting four different cotton seed varieties. Of these four, the Fibermax type stands out for its thorough field-to-ginning certification process (conducted by external partners Aiforiki and Qmscert), its traceability, and its implementation of precision agriculture—in layperson’s terms, a system of meteorological and soil stations is set up in the fields, offering a way for farmers to glean priceless data on irrigation and fertilization. All these factors contribute to measurable positive impacts, including some that land directly in the cotton growers’ pockets: according to CSF’s most recent report, in 2018 all participating CSF producers received, on average, an additional 2.1 euro cents per kilogram of seedcotton.

It’s a scheme with far-reaching effects for those outside the farms and mills, too: everyone from local communities to fashion consumers further along the chain benefits. Regarding this first category, the CSF program works to promote social responsibility beyond fields and fashion houses, sponsoring local initiatives in participating farmers’ towns (42.1 percent of these are education-centric).

As for customers, the program helps bust the myth that “stylish” and “sustainable” can’t be one and the same: more and more luxe-but-ethical labels are choosing sustainable Greek cotton for their final brand-name products, like Ioanna Kourbela, an Athens-based TCBL partner with a timeless, Greek geometry-inspired aesthetic in its men’s, women’s and children’s apparel. George Yiannakakos, Business Development Manager at Ioanna Kourbela, says that they have been focusing on sustainability and natural fibres since its establishment in the 1970s. He points out that “fair worker conditions and clean soil are essential ingredients in sustainable Greek cotton,” and that the resulting quality, something recognized in particular by producers of lingerie and underwear.

The fact is that consumers can’t rely on natural fibers alone if they’re interested in making smarter choices; rather they must look at overarching brand strategies. Mega-retailers like Zara and H&M are actually among organic cotton’s top buyers. There’s a reason to look to labels where the focus is on fine basics, not trends: using sustainable cotton makes little difference if the garment itself is poorly produced and likely to fall apart after a few washes.

Article by Mary Gray for TCBL