where on earth..?

yet again it seems like its been a while since I posted here, but that is basically because once again I am in India. Having previously not been to India for years, I am now on my third trip in less than twelve months.

I am here again to visit fairtrade registered clothing factories, to look at how they are operating and iron out some technical issues relating to garment production. All this has been a pretty steep learning curve for me, and one that I have enjoyed greatly – albeit with more than a touch of carbon guilt playing on my mind as I fly backwards and forwards.

I have also found myself in the unusual position of ‘the rich guy’ who has to be looked after and checked up on wherever I go by my anxious Indian counterparts. This was somewhat stifling on my last trip, this time I have pretty much managed to circumvent it whic his a relief.

Having said that I dont really have much by the way of free time, I’m out at factory sites for most of the day, and in a car for quite a while too. So while I would like to see more of this wonderful country while I am here, its not really something I get the chance to do.

India, for all its charm and manifold delights is of course a place of grinding poverty. This is one of the main reasons I am here, the impact that fairtrade has here can be huge. Whereas with organic cotton cultivation the farmer groups or their commercial partners must come up with all the cash for social uplift themselves, with fairtrade the farmers are given a guaranteed premium for what they produce, which means that the social uplift comes from within rather than without.

However, there are problems at the moment with fairtrade cotton, the principal one being that people arent buying it in sufficient quantity. One major retailer which was one of the pioneers in Fairtrade cotton has recently scaled back its commitment to buying, in favour of a less costly scheme, leaving the cotton processors who have invested heavily in fairtrade cotton rather in the lurch.

Unless we can get consistency with buyers, then this will be a rocky road for the producers. One way for that to happen would be for buying companies to form co-operative buying groups, allowing them to be able to buy sensible amounts of goods on a consistent level. One factory owner I met yesterday complained that he was getting orders for 250 pieces, which in his terms is so minute as to be not worth it. However, for the buyer this may represent a reasonable investment, without the risk of having unsellable stock. If that buyer were to find three other like minded buyers, and they clubbed together to buy 1000 pieces, they would not only save money per item, but they would also help the factory immensely. This has the knock on benefit of being more sustainable, as the lower purchase price means more profit for the buyer, and a better likelihood of continuing in business.

I must admit to having had my grumbles and qualms about the fairtrade system recently, what with the uptake by brands like the much maligned (quite reasonably) Nestle, and the less maligned but also huge Cadbury. However, these kind of trips help to restore my faith in what for farmers can be a very good system indeed. As monitoring increases and more players come into the field, the system will have a really positive impact on factories too. All the FT factories I have visited have been of a high standard in terms of labour rights, cleanliness, and so on. Personally I think that as Transfair, the American fairtrade people get to certifying more supply chains in this area, we will see some real progress.

If brands and consumers can stick with fairtrade for ten years, I think that we will find it become the new norm. A decade of fairtrade cotton could prove to be the end of farmers in suicidal hock to chemical companies, and kids toiling in sweatshops. The question is, can we bear to pay the premium prices for a decade, or perhaps the real question is, can they bear for us not to.

There is a fight on, the vested interests in conventional cotton will not give up their cash cow lightly, nor will the sweatshop owners relinquish their ability to make money out of desperate people.  But my message is simple, make the changes you can, dont buy the cheap fast fashion, consider all purchases and when you need to buy a new garment, where possible buy from responsible companies who are investing in organics and fairtrade – in doing so you are helping to change the future.

And it will make the nightmare I had trying to get a blinking visa all worth while 🙂

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