The Swedish retailer’s philanthropic arm said Tuesday that it will be directing the money to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, whose partner organizations have put boots on the ground to provide humanitarian assistance such as food, sanitation and shelter to the tens of millions of people who have been displaced or otherwise affected by the unprecedented monsoon rains and rapidly melting glaciers. There are also fears that Lake Manchar, Pakistan’s largest freshwater lake, could spill over into densely packed cities across Sindh.
The death toll in the South Asian nation, a third of which is currently submerged underwater, has crossed the 1,300 mark. More than 1 million houses have been damaged or destroyed and 800,000 livestock have perished so far. Though the final cost of the building, infrastructure, agricultural and livestock loss will take another six to eight weeks to determine, minister of planning Ahsan Iqbal said that it could well exceed $10 billion and take the better part of a decade to remediate. It’s a tragedy, he said, not of the country’s own making but as a direct consequence of climate change. Already, the government has warned of an approaching food crisis.
By H&M Group’s own admission, the company is heavily dependent on cotton as a raw material. Pakistan is not only the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton, exporting $3.4 billion worth of cotton in 2021 and contributing roughly 6 percent of the global supply, according to United Nations Comtrade data, but it’s also the second-largest producer of Better Cotton after India. Iqbal estimates that the floodwaters have wiped out at least 45 percent of Pakistan’s cotton crop. Better Cotton, the world’s largest sustainable cotton program, told Sourcing Journal last week that its licensed farms could lose as much as 70 percent of their output in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, though it later equivocated that it will need several weeks to “grasp the full picture” as it continues to gather feedback from field staff.
H&M is a founding member of Better Cotton, which until last year was known as the Better Cotton Initiative. Though the Cos and Monki owner did not respond to a request about how much Better Cotton it purchases, it topped a 2019 list of brands and retailers that source the fiber. 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.
Adidas and Target, both buyers of Better Cotton, told Sourcing Journal that they had nothing to share at the present moment regarding aid. Multiple emails to Gap Inc., Ikea, Levi Strauss and Nike, which purchase significant amounts of Better Cotton, went unanswered. Hina Fouiza, who joined Better Cotton as its Pakistan director earlier this month, said the organization is developing a strategy in response to the catastrophe. This may involve greater engagement from its brand and retailer partners, though none have reached out “at this stage,” said Eva Clayton, communications director at the Geneva- and London-based organization.
While Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of fashion advocacy group Remake, welcomed H&M’s pledge, she also isn’t surprised by the relative “radio silence” from the fashion industry as a whole. She remembers how brands and retailers promised to provide financial relief to garment workers in the global South through the International Labour Organization Call to Action, which “resulted in nothing.” Now, their “deafening silence speaks volumes of how little they value their supply chain workers,” the Pakistani native said.
“Pakistan was already grappling with inflationary pressures and an economic downturn when the floods hit,” Barenblat told Sourcing Journal. “My home country has barely come back from Covid-19 and a wash of order cancellations to being on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Much like the start of the pandemic garment workers are contending with hunger, a lack of clean water [and the] loss of homes without any real support from brands.”
To fill the breach, Remake has launched a fundraising campaign to support garment workers affiliated with the Labour Education Foundation, a workers’ rights organization. Through its relief efforts last year, the nonprofit was able to raise $150,000 to get food and medical supplies into the hands of workers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
“[We know] that our partner, the Labor Education Federation, which includes renowned Pakistani trade union leaders, human rights and women’s rights activists, will get rations, water and urgent supplies directly into the hands of workers who have lost everything in the floods,” Barenblat said. “At Remake, we are able to bundle small contributions from citizens around the world to send LEF one wire, taking no fees. If we can do this, so can big brands who have long benefitted from this workforce.”
“As Sourcery, we have just begun to engage growing groups in Pakistan,” Crispin Argento, the Amsterdam-based company’s managing director, told Sourcing Journal. “Most of the spinners we work with were purchasing fiber from outside of Pakistan in places like Brazil, the U.S and Australia. However, many have shown interest in growing the qualities and capacity of local fiber and we have some exciting projects planned for next season. [But] this recent event may disrupt those plans given the massive humanitarian need in Pakistan that really, quite frankly, makes cotton farming a low priority at this stage.”
Argento hopes to raise 30,000 euros ($29,700) for the Pakistani growers through GoFundMe. Most smallholder cotton farmers, he said, net an average of $300 per year from their crops. “We figured if we raise $30,000 we can support 1,00 growers at least with the resources they need to cover family and household expenses and get their farms in working order for next season,” he said.
With cotton commodity prices already pushing past a 36 percent hike this year because of the worsening supply shortages, the widespread cotton loss in Pakistan will only create more headaches for the garment and textile industry. But it’s also important to realize that behind every cotton boll is a human being with “hopes and dreams,” Argento said.
“We too often dehumanize commodities, which by the very definition require a faceless and fungible exchange,” he said. “Unfortunately, traditional commodity trade itself is designed to obscure the farmer and in doing so obscures the realities on the farm, which through this manmade unnatural disaster is on display for the world to see.”
For Pakistanis who are already struggling with record inflation that has sent the prices of everything from electricity to medicine soaring, the “spiral of sky-high food and raw material prices” as a result of the flooding could lead to extreme hunger and privation for large numbers of people, said Elizabeth Cline, director of policy and advocacy at Remake. According to Action Against Hunger, 27 million people in the country did not have access to sufficient food even before the floods. In their aftermath, the charity said, there is a “real risk” of long-term hunger.
“Brands donating money is of course welcome and urgently needed,” Cline told Sourcing Journal. “But what is even more important is for them to make commitments to protect and assure garment workers’ wages even in the event of factory temporary closures due to the flooding and to guarantee severance if there are layoffs due to economic downturns.”