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Can Pakistan Bridge the Gap Between Organic Cotton’s Supply and Demand?

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When it comes to sustainability trends, seeds are taking the reign.

The organic cotton label has recently been catching the eye of denim consumers as the demand for sustainable fashion increases. To answer their call, companies throughout the denim supply chain have been clamoring for more organic cotton from farmers. But what they’re finding is that the world’s supply of the fiber might not be enough to meet the demand.

While new data from the Textile Exchange’s 2021 Organic Cotton Market Report shows that the amount of harvested organic cotton set records in the 2019-20 crop year at 249,153 tons, this sum still accounts for just 1 percent of global production.

Enter industry efforts for more organic cotton strategies such as Milliner Organic, which Pakistan-based denim mill Artistic Milliners launched alongside environmental nonprofit World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan and the Government of Baluchistan. The program aims to commercialize indigenous organic cotton in the Baluchistan region and add transparency to the value chain.

Textile Exchange’s report indicated that the top seven organic cotton-producing countries, which together account for 95 percent of global production, were India at 50 percent, followed by China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Tanzania, Tajikistan and the U.S. Though Pakistan wasn’t one of the top-ranking countries, it was one of the biggest contributors to the global growth, signaling it’s gaining momentum in the market.

Earlier this year, Danish apparel company Bestseller, which owns labels Jack & Jones, Vero Moda and Only, helped fuel Milliner Organic with a 30 percent funding. According to Danique Lodewijks, a senior project specialist at Bestseller, the initiative allows the company to make a major impact in sustainable fashion.

“Cotton is a very important fiber for Bestseller, as more than 50 percent of our total fiber consumption comes from cotton,” she said during an Artistic Milliner webinar on Thursday. “We have a relatively high cotton footprint, and therefore also a big opportunity to actually influence and promote change in the fashion industry—but we also know that currently there is simply not enough organic cotton available in the market to meet the needs of the industry.”

The initiative is directly aligned with Bestseller’s target to source 30 percent organic cotton by 2025, but that’s not the only driving force for the partnership. Lodewijks said the company also got involved as a way to gain more insight into what is happening on the ground and build stronger relationships with farmers and suppliers, ultimately securing its future organic cotton supply.

Increasing transparency throughout the supply chain—specifically at the fiber stage—has been a subject of focus for many in recent years. According to Ruud Schute, program director at Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), a multi-stakeholder organization dedicated to the fiber, the seeds are the most important part of the organic journey.

“Finding the right seed for the right yield, making sure that the farmers get the crops they expect, and making sure that the integrity is not compromised from the beginning [is what’s most important],” he said. “I think everybody understands that once we start with the wrong base for organic cotton, we will have a lot of catching up to do later.”

He added that it’s important to grow organic cotton with consideration to the heavy demand, but “with a very clear eye on reality and on how far nature can go in a certain period of time, and how quickly we can replicate this without compromising the seed.”

In May, OCA released the “Non-GM Cottonseed Production Guidelines,” which help the industry safeguard the integrity of organic cotton at the seed level. The new guidelines aim to create a standardized industry approach for the production of non-genetically engineered (non-GM) seed marketed to organic cotton growers and increase their access to non-GM seed.

The guidelines are just one part of a multifaceted approach to ensure an organic cotton label indeed reflects an organic cotton product. Technology is another crucial part of the process. According to Omer Ahmed, CEO at Artistic Milliners, digitizing the process is the “only way” to ensure traceability from farm to retail.

Earlier this year, the mill partnered with blockchain-based platform Retraced to digitally connect all supply chain partners and allow them to exchange data. Through the partnership, the platform digitizes and tracks cotton shipments directly from farms in the Rahim Yar Khan of Pakistan, which in turn compensates individual farmers for better cotton cultivation and picking practices.

Though Milliner Organic began with a sample size of 500 farmers, it has skyrocketed to 2,000 farmers registered with the program. Ahmed noted that the program has the potential to help even more individuals at the heart of the supply chain.

“Our main objective for the farmer is to protect their premiums,” he said. “That’s why we reached out to OCA—to help us ensure that we have a system where the farmer gets his share of the proceeds. We are quite transparent when it comes to that aspect.”

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