Participation of the entire sector

Fairtrade, the main fair trade label, organized the International Forum of Fairtrade and fair-organic cotton in West Africa, in Paris on 15 March 2016. All the industry players were present for this edition: Representatives of producer cooperatives, companies of the spinning – textiles – clothing, fair trade professionals and Fairtrade Africa, an organization representing 410 organizations and 932,000 producers affiliated to Fairtrade International on the African continent. This participation made this forum an exceptional opportunity for rewarding exchanges, including on substantive issues and challenges.

During the morning, Anne-Catherine Kane, liaison officer of Fairtrade Africa, gave an overview of the African Fairtrade cotton, still modest considering the fair trade movement: 9 organizations representing 22,600 producers in four West African countries are involved, as well as 13 organizations in Uganda, Egypt, India and Brazil. Some companies also have production contracts with independent producers, mainly in India.

Worrying findings

Producers and buyers started this day with a troublesome fact widely shared: almost ten years after its launch, fair cotton is one of the few Fairtrade labelled products whose sales have declined since 2009, when, as recalled Julie later Stoll, director of the platform for fair trade in France, sales under this label have reached 7 billion euros in 2015. Observing constantly falling cotton prices on the international market, producer organizations in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin have indeed invested in the Fairtrade certification, launched in 2005 with French industrial and institutional partners, which guarantees a better price than the current market. But since 2009, the demand of Fairtrade cotton is more than two times less than the supply from producers (19 300 tonnes against 45 500 tonnes).



Cotton grower in Mali

Thus, for the second consecutive year in 2015, many cooperatives were unable to sell their cotton under the Fairtrade label. This explains the non payment of the costs of certification by three producer organizations (that’s one in four organizations), two in Senegal and one in Benin, thus causing their decertification by the certifier in 2015. Other organizations announced that they would leave the system if sales do not re-established this year. The concrete and poignant testimony of a Malian producer illustrated the human consequences of the current crisis of West African Fairtrade cotton.


Cotton with multiple qualities

Photo-branche-de-cotonWest African cotton is yet recognized as being of excellent quality, because of the length of its fiber and of production conditions. In West Africa, cotton is grown without irrigation, which ensures a good water footprint, leaving the use of the latter for the needs of families. In environmental terms, the Fairtrade label guarantees a significant drop in the use of pesticides, prohibiting the most harmful and chemical fertilizers. About half of Fairtrade certified cotton is certified organic, against only 0.55% of conventional cotton. Organic cotton quality also seems to attract consumers more than fair trade cotton. Organic cotton market is, unlike Fairtrade cotton, supported for many years by a steady increase in demand. Would a solution to the poor sales of Fairtrade cotton therefore not rely on further organic certification,getting it closer to 100% cotton with double organic and Fairtrade certifications?

The hardship of conversion to organic

To answer this question and assess the hardship of converting cotton farmers still following conventional techniques to organic farming, it is necessary to understand the production systems of West African cotton farmers. Sodefitex, which is their partner in Senegal, describes it as following:

As elsewhere in West Africa, Senegalese Cotton is a cash crop that is part of a polyculture system associating it with food crop (maize or millet) and sometimes livestock. The market for the valuation of organic farming does not exist for these food crops, the search for returns brings the peasants away from organic farming.

We have seen how the hardship in finding a market for Fairtrade cotton lead organizations to abandon Fairtrade certification. When cotton prices do not pay enough, the producers sometimes abandon cotton to turn to peanut production. The impacts of climate change, also widely distributed in the Sahel region, add to the issue of poor sales, causing a rain delay of a month or more, and insufficient rainfall.

The diagram below summarizes the information discussed, relating to the issues of West African Fairtrade cotton fair:

Click on the picture to see it in large format

The buyers’ perspective

Buyers’ testimonies shed light on the difficulties of the African Fairtrade cotton market. For Mr. Devilder, president of the company Devcot, demand for Fairtrade cotton is almost null, customers preferring organic cotton. TDV Industries is engaged in organic and / or fair trade cotton from yarn to garments. Buyers still find it impossible to find a full range of cotton at Fairtrade conditions, and therefore Fairtrade cloth. To ensure the marketing of organic and Fairtrade cotton purchased Industries, the latter is often associated with recycled polyester.

The precariousness of the sector has undoubtedly weakened some farmers’ organizations. For a Beninese cotton expert present at the first round table, the leadership of peasant organizations in the cotton sector in West Africa has become a problem. Several speakers were also of the opinion that building an internal control system shared by all organizations of a country to reduce certification costs (as is the case for example for coffee producer cooperatives in Burundi) would represent a danger in terms of credibility.


Société Armor Lux à Quimper. Photo : F. Tanneau AFP

In this somewhat gloomy landscape, the good news is the commitment of public buyers and the professional clothing chain in favor of Fairtrade cotton, for which France is the pioneer (La Poste, Paris City Hall, Cepovett, Kiplay , Armor Lux …), followed by other European countries (London Railway Swiss Railway …). The cosmetics giant L’Oréal also supports 532 Senegalese cotton farmers in fair trade, for the production of a Fairtrade labelled towel, which will be offered to all European hairdressers by summer 2016. The on-costs on the finished product is evaluated at 20% by Oréal.

Going back to the causes…

Rana Plaza

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building (avril 2013)

The specific features of the sector of the garment and fashion partly explain the hardship of the African Fairtrade cotton, launched by a fair trade labeling organization with more experience in food chains including fewer intermediaries and slower movements. The end customer often ignores the origin and movements of cotton, and often seems more concerned about the possible organic quality of the fiber than by the socioeconomic conditions of the farmers.

Moreover, the Rana Plaza catastrophe, a building housing textile subcontractors which collapsed on April 24th, 2013 in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,000 workers, could have partially move the ethical concerns of consumers and the concept of social responsibility of the manufacturers further downstream.

Finally, the launch of the Better Cotton Initiative has blurred the image of GM cotton. Indeed, the main argument of this program is to reduce the use of pesticides, but this is often achieved by the use of genetically modified seeds!

… and making proposals

The findings presented at the forum led the participants to make proposals during the workshop session, proposals which were welcomed by Anup Kumar Singh, Global Cotton Product Manager at Fairtrade International:

  • Fairtrade should work on the entire industry, businesses and consumers are more sensitive to a fair garment to a garment with Fairtrade cotton. The organization is also planning the launch of the first Fairtrade textile in June 2016.
  • At the strategic level, it seems more promising to focus on fair-organic quality than solely fairtrade labelled. The producers’ conversion effort to organic farming could thus be supported.
  • Producers would like the payment of Fairtrade certification fees to be related to the actual sale of fair trade cotton by their organizations. Note that producer organizations may already apply to a fund to support the certification managed by Fairtrade, at any time in existence and for 2 consecutive years. This support covers about 70% of the producers’ certification fee.
  • Finally, it would be desirable to strengthen the support to producers from governments and international cooperation agencies.
  • African organizations and companies could themselves turn to the African textile and clothing market. By allying to African designers such as Claire Kane in Senegal, organic and fair trade cotton could also address the African middle classes, a market far from marginal.


Ultimately, the crisis of West African Fairtrade cotton questions the Fairtrade labeling model implemented over 30 years ago by Max Havelaar / Fairtrade. By focusing on raw materials, the labeling organization guaranteed a better income and better trading conditions to nearly 2 million farmers in dozens of industries, an accomplishment that has to be put in scale with international trade issues . From this point of view, organic agriculture and agroecology have proven more instrumental in changing the rules of production than fair trade in changing the rules of international trade.

The main finding highlighted by the Paris Cotton Forum 2016 is that the issue of income for African cotton farmers can not be addressed only at the level of the purchase and sale of raw material, but associating as best possible all stakeholders in the sector. This would also be the opportunity for Fairtrade to take into account for the first time the necessity to shift to more sustainable modes of processing and consumption, which I would summarize by the slogan “Fair fashion, not Fast fashion“. Not producing more, be it Fairtrade cotton, but producing better, from the cotton ball to textile and clothing. Many players present at this event are ready for it. Strategic direction must now be implemented to get fair trade cotton out from its crisis docking it to structural change in the whole sector.


Share This