Can going green help pick the slavery out of cotton?

MAYAPUR, India, Feb 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Wearing thick gloves and a shawl wrapped around her face, Kanchen Kanjarya is busily picking cotton in the midday sun on her small farm in Mayapur in India’s western state of Gujarat.

Kanjarya, 42, works up to eight hours a day on the six acre plot, one of millions of small holder farms in India supplying cotton to garment factories making clothes for Western brands.

But while the days are long and the heat can hit 35 degrees Celsius (95F), Kanjarya is delighted to be among a small but rising number of farmers being trained to grow sustainable cotton that can cut water and chemical use and improve profits.

With the global cotton industry under scrutiny for using forced and child labour and polluting the environment, more Western companies are starting to work with farmers to clean up fashion’s leading natural fibre – and its complex supply chain.

“With the extra money we can invest in our children’s education, buy equipment, and repair our homes,” Kanjarya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside her house in the small, dusty village of Mayapur, showing off her new toilet and shower.

“I have bought a tractor and also a motorbike for my son to get to his job. Two of my three daughters are teachers. This is good for the whole family and my children now have a future.”

Kanjarya is one of 1,250 women farmers in Gujarat, India’s biggest cotton and cottonseed producing state, taking part in one of a number of small initiatives led by companies to combat environmental problems and break the cycle of child labour.

For the past three years these women farmers have had classes and infield training twice a month in sustainable farming methods such as water efficiency, natural pesticides, and soil health, designed to increase cotton yields and income.

The pilot, by social enterprise CottonConnect, India’s Self Employed Women’s Association and funded by UK budget retailer Primark, has pushed up profits more than two-fold and is expanding to 10,000 farmers over six years, its founders say.