The largest multinational chemical production company, BASF, has announced that its e3 sustainable cotton program will co-host a series of roundtable events as a part of the Conscious Fashion and Lifestyle Network, an online platform hosted by the United Nations for industry stakeholders, media, governments, and UN entities with the aim of enabling collaboration and accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The events are intended to take place in New York City throughout this year, although specifics have yet to be outlined.
Why is a chemical company involved in sustainable fashion efforts?
BASF, which stands for Badische Anilin-und SodaFabrik, or Baden Aniline and Soda Factory, was founded in the German-speaking state of Baden in 1865 and is headquartered in Germany with subsidiaries in more than eighty countries. The company was set up originally to manufacture synthetic dyes after it was discovered that aniline, a compound extracted from a common waste product, coal tar, could be used to create vibrant, lasting coloring agents that were in high demand for clothing textiles. Aniline dyes, which are still used prominently in our clothing today, have contributed significantly to the amount of toxic waste that pollutes waterways and sources of drinking water around the world.
The BASF Group is also a developer of fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and seed treatments used by the farming industry, with cotton crops requiring extensive chemical protection to survive. According to Cotton Incorporated, a nonprofit research and marketing organization for the US cotton industry, 80 percent of the world’s cotton crops would be lost to pests each year without pesticides and so BASF could play a major role in effecting more responsible and sustainable growing practices and countering the negative impacts its products have had on human health and natural resources. The Sourcing Journal reported in 2019 that cotton represents an estimated 50 percent share of the global fiber market and is grown on six continents, leaving its impact on the environment looming large.
What is the e3 Sustainable Cotton program?
The e3 program is a traceability initiative, established by BASF, that tracks environmental outcomes back to each farmer’s individual cotton bale—via a Department of Agriculture-assigned Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) tag in the US—and measures energy and water usage, pesticide management, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon, among other sustainability factors.
Farmers sign up for the program and the goal is to help retailers and consumers know where their cotton is coming from, how it is grown, and to drive the consumption of certified sustainable cotton that they commit is being verified by third-party auditors, including the US Environmental Protection Agency. This is accomplished with the help of US-developed, cloud-based software like MyFarms, which is used by the farmers to input data to also understand the performance history of their crop fields. Collecting and sharing data not only has the economic benefit of making farming more efficient and productive but can also put into perspective the scope of the different sustainability issues that need to be tackled for the scientific community.
“Sustainability is the responsibility of every company moving forward,” the Regional Seed Sustainability and Fiber Development Manager for BASF Agricultural Solutions, Jennifer Crumpler, shared in a statement. “Our program’s participation with the Conscious Fashion and Lifestyle Network will allow us to bring awareness of a better way to create sustainable cotton clothing. We can trace our cotton from farm to finished product. Cotton farmers can deliver on sustainability measurements that leave the land better than they found it. There is a way to make the cotton supply chain transparent for consumers.”
In 2021, BASF also launched the e3 Sustainable Cotton Grower Fund that provides economic support for cotton farmers in the e3 program who commit to growing sustainable cotton.
Geopolitical updates affecting the Cotton Industry
In other news impacting the global cotton supply chain, the Cotton Campaign, which is a coalition of human rights NGOs, independent trade unions, brand associations, investors, and academics, has announced an end to a global boycott of cotton grown in Uzbekistan.
In 2009, the Campaign pledged to pressure the Uzbek Government to end state-imposed forced labor and child labor used in the country’s cotton production. The pressure applied through legal, political, and activist methods finally moved the government to launch a reform effort in 2017 and in 2021, an independent monitoring report by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found that there was no forced labor used in last year’s cotton harvest due in part to fast-paced privatization of the cotton sector. While the Cotton Campaign acknowledges that there is still a need for broader reforms to empower civil society, protect freedom of association, and establish accountability in the Uzbekistan cotton sector, it is still a notable success for collective action and combined economic pressure applied to repressive, authoritarian states.
The Cotton Campaign continues its work to free the cotton industry from forced labor in Uzbekistan as well as in Turkmenistan, which remains one of the most repressive countries in the world and forces tens of thousands of workers to pick cotton every year.
India rescinds Cotton Import Duties until September
Due to rising prices of cotton fiber this year, the Government of India has waived the import duty of 10 percent on cotton effective April 14 through September 30, 2022. The relief effort is intended to support Indian textile mills meet their export targets through the remainder of the season. The move should help aid an ailing textile supply chain and also benefit consumers by helping to keep prices low.
Although political turmoil in places like Europe and Sri Lanka negatively impact the global textile and fiber market, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US, Egypt, and Israel remain the major suppliers of Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton to India with Australia and Brazil contributing as well.