We know that cotton farming can use lots of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water – unless it’s grown using more sustainable farming practices.
More Sustainable Cotton
That’s one of the reasons Primark has been working with its partner CottonConnect since 2013 to develop our Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme (PSCP) which is based on the REEL code. The REEL code was developed by CottonConnect and is a three-year agricultural programme providing farmers with training on more sustainable cotton farming practices. The PSCP is the largest of its kind in the fashion industry and it employs local implementation partners to work directly with cotton farmers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We help train them to grow cotton using more sustainable farming practices by using less water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
These practices have proven benefits. Farmers on the programme have on average reduced their use of chemical pesticides by 40%, their use of chemical fertilisers by 25% and their water use by 10% and the programme’s been a great success.
Average yields for farmers have risen and so too have their profits. At the same time their use of agricultural inputs like pesticide, fertiliser and water has gone down.
Right now, one third of the cotton in our clothes is recycled, organic or from our Sustainable Cotton Programme. We have now trained almost 150,000 farmers in more sustainable farming practices under this Programme, and we are well-placed to reach our target of 160,000 farmers by the end of 2022.
Improving Soil Health
But we need to do better and we need to go further to actively improve and restore the local environments where our materials are farmed.
When it comes to cotton farming, we know that practices like tilling (turning over) the soil and using conventional fertilisers release CO2. We know that soil plays an important role in supporting healthy eco systems, they are important reservoirs of biodiversity and can help to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
We are working with farmers to introduce new practices that will not only help to improve the farm-based ecosystem, including rehabilitating of the soil, but also improve livelihood opportunities. It’s called regenerative farming. The PSCP already uses practices that help farmers to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers and adopt better soil and pest management practices. We will continue to help farmers to embed these practices. We will also continue to introduce other more regenerative practices to farmers across the programme, strengthening the positive impacts of their farming on the environment and their livelihoods.
Better Farming Practices
We’re collaborating with CottonConnect, alongside our implementation partners on the ground, on even better farming practices. With CottonConnect we’re also developing a new industry-leading regenerative cotton code and we’ll be working with farmers through an expanded training programme, which builds on our existing PSCP training, on how they can apply these farming practices. But this is a big ambition and it will take time. Our aim is for every PSCP farmer to adopt more regenerative practices by 2030.
To test out the new farming methods, in 2021 we kicked off a pilot programme with 3,000 farmers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The farmers are being shown the benefits of more regenerative farming practices and being trained in how to use them.
The practices they are learning to use include:
- Intercropping and cover cropping – where crops are grown to protect the soil and stop it blowing away rather than clearing the land after harvesting.
- Improving soil health through reduced tillage and using organic soil cover – in order to disturb the soil as little as possible.
- Encouraging better animal husbandry - so as to improve livestock health, but also diversification of farmer incomes.
- Agroforestry – where trees are grown around crops or pastureland and used as wind breaks, food, fuel, sources of income and stores of carbon that enrich soil and help reduce erosion.
Through this pilot we’re developing our understanding of how to leave the land and its biodiversity in a better condition.
First-Ever Scalable Regenerative Farming Programme
The pilot programme will also help us fine-tune the new REEL Regenerative Cotton Code, which we hope will be the first-ever non-organic regenerative programme that can be grown in size. It is based on farming practices that are designed to improve the soil, enhance biodiversity, use less water and reduce the impact of climate change and secure more sustainable, more resilient livelihoods for farmers and their communities. This last point is crucial because we will need to ensure an economic return for farmers so that regenerative farming makes business sense for them and they are motivated to change their practices.
However, it goes without saying that every farm is different and that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. As with our current PSCP, we will work with our local partners to find what works best in the local context. Our partners will also work to monitor progress annually.
And we’re not stopping there! We know that what we’re doing is really important – not to mention a win-win for farmers. Which is why CottonConnect has decided to make this pioneering REEL Regenerative Cotton Code available to other brands, retailers and farmers. They’re doing this in the hope that they too will benefit and collectively we can all work towards nurturing nature.