The situation is equal parts supply-chain crisis and humanitarian catastrophe. The London and Geneva-based nonprofit, which promotes cotton production based on an array of social and environmental criteria, works with nearly 500,000 licensed farmers across 1 million hectares of Pakistan cropland, most of them concentrated in the flood-hit Punjab and Sindh provinces.
Better Cotton is still surveying the damage, but early estimates suggest that between 200,000 to 250,000 farmers have been affected by the unsparing deluge, which has killed at least 1,100 people, including 380 children. One-third of the South Asian nation is currently underwater, the result of unprecedented rainfall coupled with glacier melt from an earlier—also record-breaking—heatwave.
Everything happened so quickly that no one—not the government, not the farmers—had time to react, according to Hina Fouiza, who joined Better Cotton as its Pakistan director earlier this month. “They have lost everything,” she said. “They’ve not only lost their houses but also their livestock—everything.”
Pakistan, home to 1.5 million cotton farmers, is the second-largest producer of Better Cotton after India. More than 280 brands and retailers, including boldface names such as Adidas, H&M and Gap, have adopted Better Cotton as a way to fulfill sustainable sourcing goals. In 2021, farmers in Pakistan generated more than 682,000 metric tons of Better Cotton, or 14.5 percent of the 4.7 million metric tons the organization certified globally. Better Cotton itself made up one-fifth of the world’s cotton production that year.
The destruction was so acute because harvesting had only just begun. Only cotton that was picked early was able to be saved. “So the rest of the areas, it’s all gone. And it’s not a situation where it’s recoverable,” Fouiza said.
Fouiza said that Better Cotton in Pakistan will likely be able to deliver at most 55 percent of its usual quota. The shortfall won’t help with global commodity prices, which have soared by as much as 36 percent this year as a result of a supply squeeze triggered by extreme weather from China to Lubbock, Texas. The country’s domestic textile industry, which makes up more than 60 percent of Pakistan’s exports, also relies on a steady stream of inputs.
Better Cotton is trying to strategize how best to respond to the volume decline, though Fouiza said that there are plenty of places to source Better Cotton, which has maintained a surplus from its inception as a way to remain nimble. Worldwide, the organization has licensed 2.2 million farmers in 24 countries. Its focus right now, however, is to drum up real-time figures in Pakistan with the help of its on-the-ground implementation partners, including CottonConnect Pakistan, the Rural Business Development Center and World Wildlife Fund Pakistan.
The nonprofit is also trying to pinpoint its farmers’ most immediate needs. Already, Better Cotton has heard from developmental agencies such as the German Agency for International Cooperation, better known as GIZ, and U.K. Aid, though it’s waiting to engage with its brand and retailer members.
Fouiza said that in addition to financial aid, would-be donors should think about offering farmers alternative ways of earning their keep. The farming community, she said, invests its entire savings into its land, so if farmers have “lost the crops, that means they have lost their livelihood for many months.” A longer-term solution, such as microfinance or group loans, that could help farmers get back on their feet would be more effective in the long term than a handout. Perhaps they could be provided with the skills for a different occupation that they can begin right away.
“Once you’ve lost everything, you can’t just keep on looking to people giving you clothes and food,” she said. “You have to rebuild yourself again.”
Looking further into the future, farmers need to be equipped with crop insurance as well as contingency plans for future disasters, though this is beyond Better Cotton’s purview, but requires institutional and governmental intervention, Fouiza said. To tackle climate change, which scientists say is increasing the frequency of weather disasters like Pakistan’s, Better Cotton aims to halve its emissions per ton of cotton by 2030.
For now, however, Pakistan’s farmers are in triage mode, requiring medical assistance, emergency housing and other forms of relief that Better Cotton’s implementation partners are working to provide with its support.
“We’re in the process now, step by step,” Fouiza said.