« Yes I’m very afraid,’ admits Moussa Doumbia. ‘Sometimes I can’t sleep.’ Moussa grows cotton as a cash crop in Mali. He lies awake at night wondering whether he will be able to afford medicine to treat the malaria of himself and his two youngest children, just three and five years old. The three tonnes of cotton Moussa produces gives him an annual income of $322 less than $1 a day.
‘The cotton price is not enough for farmers to cover our needs including school fees and health,’ he says.
So Moussa also farms corn, peanuts, beans and rice to feed his 10-member family. He breeds cattle, sheep and oxen which he sells in dire emergencies. He has to rely on occasional handouts from his two brothers who work abroad one in Cte dIvoire and the other in Spain. And still it’s not enough. « I don’t want my children to be cotton farmers, » he explains. « Because they will have no future. »
Sustainability starts with farmers
Cotton farmers are the invisible foundation of the fashion industry. Transparency and traceability are now key buzz words in the industry, yet companies rarely delve deep enough into their supply chains to have any direct involvement with the suppliers of this raw material.
But ignoring cotton farmers ignores the future of fashion. The downward pressure of the clothing supply chain and the obsession with cheap fast fashion comes at a cost not only to farmers but to the industry itself.
Much of global cotton supply is grown by 35-50 million small-scale cotton farmers in developing countries, many in least developed countries. Like Moussa, most live below the poverty line, vulnerable to low and fluctuating prices lower than their costs of production, dependent on ginners and middle men.
Cotton production in developing countries has a smaller environmental footprint and costs less. Most cotton cultivation in West Africa is rain-fed, giving it with a much lower water footprint than industrialized farming. Meanwhile, it costs only US$ 30 cents to produce a pound of cotton in Benin versus US$ 68 cents in the United States. Yet it is the cotton farmers in regions like West Africa and India who suffer the most from low global cotton prices and underinvestment.