The Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF), known for its cotton standards Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) and Cotton made in Africa Organic, has expanded its range to include the Regenerative Cotton Standard (RCS). It intends to offer both textile companies and cotton farmers a holistic new approach to responding to the growing challenges in the cotton and textile industry.
Specifically, the Regenerative Cotton Standard aims to help smallholder farmers be more resilient to the effects of climate change and offer companies a solution to future-proof the production of cotton as an essential raw material for their textiles. FashionUnited wanted to find out more about how the RCS combines the knowledge already gained through the AbTF cotton standards with new approaches in the field of regenerative agriculture and spoke to Tina Stridde, managing director of the Aid by Trade Foundation.
How will the new standard be introduced, can smallholder farmers who are already part of CmiA join it and expand their practices accordingly? How many of them will the RCS cover?
The Regenerative Cotton Standard (RCS) is open to both existing and new partners. Already CmiA-certified cotton companies can decide to introduce the RCS and simply adapt themselves and the smallholder farmers they work with to the RCS requirements. On the other hand, cotton companies that are new to CmiA can introduce the Regenerative Cotton Standard for the first time and strive for corresponding certification.
How is the knowledge of smallholder farmers utilised, are there regular meetings and training sessions?
First of all, consultations are held for each farming community in which the RCS is to be implemented, in which the smallholders familiarise themselves with the topic of regenerative agriculture and discuss with the cotton company where they see the greatest challenges for themselves. These could be the effects of climate change, for example.
Based on this, a relevance analysis and prioritisation process is carried out with the involvement of the smallholder farmers. This includes jointly identifying which RCS criteria are particularly important for the managing entity that the Aid by Trade Foundation works with locally and which are particularly important for the smallholder farmers. The findings are used to define where immediate action is required and for which criteria the cotton company is reporting transparently on the status quo. This helps everyone involved create clarity about the process.
The knowledge and experience of smallholder farmers is incorporated into the planning of implementation strategies and measures. After all, they are the ones who know their land and the regional flora and fauna best and already anticipate what could work under which conditions and how to best implement it.
Based on this comes the planning of the implementation and organising the training that will be necessary. The format and frequency of the meetings and training courses, as well as their structure, are planned directly by the cotton companies and their affiliated smallholder farmers.
What exactly are the practices used, for example in terms of soil cultivation, the promotion of plant diversity and the prevention of water seepage?
The Regenerative Cotton Standard comprises a total of ten principles. These include, for example, improving the resilience of smallholder farmers to the effects of climate change, restoring soil health, climate protection and animal welfare. Responsible management by certified partners such as cotton companies and community engagement are fundamental to the standard’s success.
The focus is on smallholder farmers and the integration of their rich traditional knowledge. As always in regenerative agriculture, the practices used to enforce these principles are very context-specific. Perhaps compost works particularly well in one farming community, while others may have an interest in tree planting and biochar production, or one group may want to keep bees.
In any case, the measures target increasing the organic material in and above the soil, as well as greater diversity in crop rotation, including mixed crops, in order to ensure greater soil health, but also greater resilience of smallholder farmers against crop failures. They can also use various techniques to ensure that rainwater is retained and that it evaporates less quickly.
What about the integration of livestock and arable farming?
When smallholder farmers also keep livestock, the animals are encouraged to graze on the fields whenever there are no crops. Efforts are also being made to identify foreign invasive species and control them if they have displaced native plant and animal species.
Will there be efforts to minimise pesticide and synthetic fertiliser use further?
The strict guidelines that regulate the use of pesticides at CmiA still apply and have been extended. In addition, as with CmiA, the RCS promotes a gradual replacement with biological pesticides. In addition, diversification measures and the promotion of beneficial organisms should ensure a better balance in the fields, which is expected to reduce problems with pests in cotton and other crops.
When it comes to fertilisers, the first step is to ensure that the smallholders fertilise their fields at all. This is not yet always the case, but at the same time it is important for healthy plant growth. Care is taken to ensure that the smallholder farmers fertilise correctly and use natural cycles for fertilisation wherever possible (e.g. manure, composted cotton residues, legumes, etc.). This makes them independent of external fertiliser purchases and increases soil health at the same time.
You mentioned an online tracking system that creates transparency across the entire value chain. How does this work? Is it accessible for consumers or for brands and retailers?
The Aid by Trade Foundation has gained extensive experience with tracking systems over the years that it has been in existence. In order to guarantee that only RCS-certified cotton is processed into yarns and then into textiles, the specially developed tracking system SCOT is used.
For full transparency and complete traceability of all RCS-labelled products along the supply chain, the SCOT system uses the Hard Identity Preserved variant - HIP for short. It makes the use of RCS cotton transparent along the entire supply chain on the basis of documents and photos and requires that the certified cotton is physically separated from other cotton throughout the entire production process.
This begins at the cotton ginning plant, continues at the spinning mill, which must prove that it has only used RCS-certified cotton for yarn production, and ends with the retailer, who has placed an order for the production of textiles with RCS-certified cotton. However, not only documents are uploaded; each transaction is confirmed in the system by the respective direct business partner.
How are RCS products labelled, is there a special label?
Products that contain certified RCS cotton can be recognised by the Regenerative Cotton Standard label. Only our contractual partners are authorised to use RCS-certified cotton and to label their products accordingly. By purchasing such a labelled product, consumers are making an important contribution to change in the fashion industry, because the Regenerative Cotton Standard improves the resilience and productivity of smallholder farming and at the same time, creates added value for agricultural soils, rural communities, the biosphere and the quality of life of farm animals.
FashionUnited conducted this interview in written format.