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“The farmers profit in any case“- Tina Stridde, Aid by Trade Foundation

By Simone Preuss


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FashionUnited is always on the lookout for interesting companies, initiatives and people in fashion and related areas. Recently, we talked with Tina Stridde, CEO, Aid by Trade Foundation and Cotton made in Africa. At the interface of fashion and the exciting field of development cooperation, she works in an area that is gaining steadily in importance in the industry.

We started our conversation with a comparison of sustainable cotton and organic cotton, whereas Ms. Stridde clarified that as part of the CmiA initiative, cotton is cultivated according to social, ecological and economical sustainability standards. Under the CmiA roof, the initiative offers the CmiA standard as well as CmiA organic cotton from Tanzania as an alternative. The latter thus receives a double certification – according to the CmiA and organic cotton standards, while CmiA farmers use pesticides and to a small extent artificial fertiliser, which would not be possible when cultivating CmiA organic cotton.

Could you tell us a bit about selling CmiA cotton?

Currently, around 350,000 tonnes certified CmiA cotton are produced annually. More and more of our 35 partners – like Otto, Asos, Jack & Jones, Rewe Group, Tchibo and Engelbert Strauss – buy this certified cotton. About half of it is currently sold as “normal” cotton but the smallholder farmers profit in any case from the positive effects of the initiative, for example better harvests due to them applying the skills they have learned during training.

Since the very beginning of the CmiA initiative, it was clear that it should be cotton for the world market, traded without a premium because no additional costs arise, usually when storing and transporting it separately or lower income for the farmers due to smaller harvest, which does not apply here. The CmiA initiative is meant to provide both sides of the textile chain with a surplus. CmiA cotton was always meant to be attractive for the mass market and integrated into the textile chain without any premium.

The participating companies pay a licencing fee, which depends on volume; the higher the cotton volume bought, the lower the fee. For a few million articles per year, for example, it just comes to 2 cents .

You have been with Aid by Trade/Cotton made in Africa since the beginning, which was more than 10 years ago - what is the biggest change since then?

By now, sustainability plays a bigger role in many companies. Before, they may have had a sustainable collection that may have looked a bit different and that was highlighted more than others. Now, sustainability is often part of the overall strategy and more and more companies have adjusted large parts of their sourcing accordingly. For example, it may be important for them that a particular percentage amount (e.g. from 20 to 100 percent) of their product range becomes sustainable.

This development has had positive consequences for Cotton made in Africa; we have grown alongside the company's sustainable collections. The Otto Group's initiative to switch its own collection as well as licensed collections to 100 percent sustainable raw materials has helped us tremendously when dealing with other companies; we were able to demonstrate that it is possible for large and complex sourcing structures as well to implement CmiA en masse. Apart from the companies belonging to the Otto Group, I would like to mention Tchibo, Rewe Group and Ernsting’s family as additional important partners.

How did you proceed when looking for new partners, did you find them or did they found you?

Both. The CmiA initiative was actively approached by interested companies and in addition, we get in touch with potential partners directly or get to know them through our networks. Decision making processes are often very long and there is frequently the misconception that the integration of sustainable cotton would be very difficult and complicated. But from the beginning, we have cooperated with all stakeholders of the textile chain like spinning mills or vertically organised production houses on the implementation.

You mentioned the misconceoption that the integration of sustainable cotton would be difficult and complicated. What other prejudices and insecurities did you have to deal with when explaining Cotton made in Africa?

Companies used to often refer to earlier experiences with organic cotton, for example in the '90s , when it was far more complicated to source and use organic cotton because the number of suppliers was limited. There was also the notion that we would influence a company's existing supply chain and change it. And then of course the clich・about higher prices of organic cotton. But all these notions have been dispelled by now.

However, one prejudice has persisted till today - that African cotton is not available worldwide, which is not true. African cotton makes up almost 18 percent of total worldwide cotton exports. Overall, about 1.5 million tonnes of cotton are produced in Africa, of which 25 percent is CmiA-certified cotton. Our cotton is present at any of the major textile markets in the world. Another prejudice is that African cotton is of lower quality. This is also not true. African cotton has properties that are typical for hand-picked cotton and offers a range of advantages in terms of ecology and quality. The complete absence of defoliants, for example, when harvesting cotton or the fact that only ripe fibres are picked. These prejudices are all easy to dispel, one just needs to get a chance to do so.

Could you talk a bit about the CmiA cooperation programme, which was launched in celebration of the initiative's 10th anniversary?

Our so-called CCC (CmiA Community Cooperation)-programme was initiated by one of our corporate partners. We were looking for ways to convey the efforts and goals of Cotton made in Africa to customers in a vivid and more emotional way and at the same time, wanted to help people help themselves. It was crucial to portray CCCP not as a classical charity project but as one that actively involves all stakeholders – companies, cotton companies and smallholder farmers.

The CCCP projects are of particular importance for the cotton companies. Theoretically, a cotton grower can – other than let's say a coffee grower who has to follow the growth of his cotton plants over the course of years – decide to plant a new crop each year, for example soy or corn. Community projects like ours are incentives to stick with cotton.

Due to a generous donation by our founder Dr. Otto for our 10th anniversary, we are able to be even more effective in the CmiA cotton growing regions: Together with the cotton companies, the rural communities submit project proposals. Most of them are extensions of existing projects that have already been started by the cotton growers who now lack the necessary funding to sustain them in the long run. So far, projects have been about the renovation of existing schools or the constructing of new ones; the expansion of hospitals or hospital wings or supporting women's cooperatives. New areas are health and environmental projects - key topics for a sustainable development.

After a first pre-selection, the project proposals are presented to the project's advisory board, which consists of representatives of the Otto Group, Welthungerhilfe and the WWF and who have the final say. Many companies are interested in co-sponsoring these kinds of projects as they offer the chance to communicate their support for Cotton made in Africa in a way that is easy to comprehend for their customers.

Coming back to the smallholder farmers - do they have to be won over for the initiative year after year?

The smallholder farmers decide each year again if they want to continue cultivating cotton. Cotton is one of the main sources of income in Africa. Often, the biggest chunk of their earnings comes from cultivating and selling cotton. So-called food crops that are cultivated in addition to cotton are usually produced for the families' personal needs or the local market. Thus, cotton plays an important role in the acquisition of cash – for example for the children's education or for the purchase of a bike or a radio.

That is the keyword - you mentioned the cotton companies repeatedly as partners. This seems to indicate a good relationship and a partnership that is working well?

Absolutely. The feedback by the cotton companies and continuous communication with them is very important for our work. They are a central point of contact for us when dealing with the smallholder farmers and they take care of their training, provide the seeds and take care of pre-financing the inputs. As part of the certification, they are monitored as well because we need reliable partners onsite who implement the CmiA standard via the smallholder farmers on the field. Over the years, we have built up a good and trustful collaboration and work together closely.

Photos: courtesy of Aid by Trade Foundation
aid by trade
Cotton made in Africa