Comment: The pandemic has left cotton farmers in Pakistan and India facing crisis-levels of hunger and financial ruin, says Alison Ward of CottonConnect

One of the key messages coming through loud and clear in fashion circles is that the mission of a brand is now more important than ever.

The latest McKinsey roundtable debate saw commercial and procurement executives from the likes of Zalando, Veepee and Farfetch discuss the likely impact of Covid-19 on the fashion sector. They all agreed: the crisis means companies will have to engage and interact with customers in new ways – but those consumers are looking more intently for purpose and sustainability from those brands.

Of course, brands uphold their missions in a range of different ways, choosing a variety of activities, processes and investments to underpin their commitment to sustainability, both in-house and along the supply chain.

By the end of this year, 12,000 people could die a day as a result of hunger linked to Covid-19 – more than will die from the virus itself

But the one thing Covid-19 has taught us is that building resilient supply chains is not just about delivering products, commodities or services in a more responsible way.

It’s also about protecting and enhancing the lives of the community members that are such an important part of bringing those goods to market.

According to Oxfam, Covid-19 has deepened the world’s hunger hotspots. By the end of this year, 12,000 people could die every day as a result of hunger linked to the pandemic. That’s more than will die from the virus itself.

The World Food Programme says that the number of people experiencing “crisis-level hunger” will rise to 270 million before the end of 2020 thanks to the pandemic – an 82% increase since 2019.

An Indian day labourer stands in line for food during the country's lockdown. (Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Our own research, carried out within the cotton-growing communities we work with on the ground in Pakistan and India, is similarly stark.

We asked those enrolled in our cotton training programmes, as well as our local partners, how they’ve been affected by Covid-19. The large majority (82%) of local partners said that farmers in their region have faced agricultural and financial difficulties as a result of the virus, with many facing food shortages and a lack of access to medical treatment. Those that haven’t been severely affect predict a negative impact on sales in the coming season.

The virus has seen many farmers struggling to make ends meet – 62% of farmers say they’re not able to build their savings enough to buy the inputs they need for the coming sowing season. More than half (59%) of local partners predict their farmers will not have enough cash to invest in buying seeds or fertilisers or paying for labour from 2021 onwards.

58% of farmers are being impacted by a reduction in migrant labour, which will result in a jump in harvesting costs next season

Meanwhile, physical restrictions imposed by lockdown measures have made it difficult for farmers to actually buy what they need for the farm. And 58% of farmers are being impacted by a reduction in migrant labour, a situation that 55% of farmers say will result in a jump in harvesting costs next season.

Covid-19 implications have also exacerbated the problem of market linkages for farmers. Smallholders in rural locations need connections to be able to buy seeds and fertilisers, and then sell their cotton, but 93% of farmers told us that support to link up the supply chain was needed to secure their futures.

The retail and textile industry faces unprecedented challenges in the coming months as the sector understands what the recovery curve looks like. Will it be V-shaped, W-shaped, L- or M-shaped? Who knows?

Covid-19 has made adopting a holistic approach within cotton supply chains essential. (Credit: CRRS Photo/Shutterstock)

While our role and function on the ground will remain the same, we know we must be more agile and nimble, to intervene and create positive impact more quickly. Yes, we’ve always focused on enhancing the livelihoods and health of farmers within supply chains. But Covid-19 has made adopting a holistic approach to building resilience and wellbeing – one that looks at people and communities, and their importance to the entire value chain – all the more important.

Most immediately, people have needed support in accessing soap and water. Very soon, the effects of changing demographics – with more men returning to villages having previously worked away, and a significant reduction in migrant labour – will start to be felt.

And we must all be ready to act, support and protect these important communities. Just as we at CottonConnect are reimagining our future role, it is up to brands and supply chain actors to work in partnership to ensure communities everywhere have the tools, capabilities and capacity to survive and thrive as the world recovers from this pandemic.

This means brands must reinvent themselves, not just simply as buyers of more sustainable commodities, but by taking responsibility for the people working within their supply chains who are so important to their businesses – and whose lives can be turned upside down in an instant.

Alison Ward is CEO of CottonConnect, an enterprise with a social mission to transform the world’s cotton for good, by creating a more sustainable and transparent cotton supply chain. CottonConnect was created in 2009 out of a unique collaboration between C&A, Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange) and Shell Foundation. Since 2009, we have worked with global brands and retailers, and over 560,000 farmers in India, Pakistan, China and Peru, contributing to a wider benefit for people in cotton farming communities.

Main picture credit Amit Dave/Reuters

Covid-19  Coronavirus  pandemic  cotton  CottonConnect  poverty  World Food Programme 

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