From the source: Adam Kay, Cotton Australia

Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay. Image supplied.

Inside Retail Weekly: Tell me about the work that Cotton Australia focuses on.

Adam Kay: Cotton Australia is the peak body representing the cotton growers. There are about 1400 cotton producers in Australia and they pay a voluntary levy per bale to fund the organisation. It works on our environmental stewardship program focusing on policy, advocacy and government regulation, trying to clear the government red tape so people can grow cotton.

We’ve got education programs in schools and we have a full-time education coordinator. We’ve been doing a lot of “teach the teacher” programs, so our teams are taking teachers onto the cotton farms and the cotton gin and showing the cotton picking. Then they have a barbecue afterwards where they can meet the farmers. We’ve also created a lot of lessons on cotton – they don’t have to be on agriculture, the lessons can be geography or maths. We’ve worked to have a lot of lessons linked to the curriculum to get cotton out there.

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IRW: Have you noticed an increased interest in sustainable cotton from brands and retailers over the years?

AK: Our environmental stewardship program has run for over 20 years, but in the last five or six years, we’ve seen brands and retailers want to know where the cotton comes from, how it was produced and the standard at it was produced. Eighty per cent of growers are in our best-practice management program and 25 per cent are fully certified. That means that an environmental auditor has gone to their farm to make sure they’re doing all the things they say. There is a checklist of about 400 different things cotton growers need to do in 10 different modules – they’re things around chemicals, soil health, biodiversity, water management and the petrochemicals that you bring onto the farm. It’s probably one of the most robust cotton certification standards in the world.

The Better Cotton Initiative [BCI] has recognised our program and said that our program is so robust that if brands have passed it, they’re automatically in. The Country Road Group, Kmart, Target and Cotton On are all part of the BCI.

IRW: Tell me more about the BCI.

AK: It’s a global sustainability initiative and we sit on the council that governs it with grower groups, brands and retailers. We sit on it with Levi’s, H&M, Marks & Spencer and there are spinning manufacturers and NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and the Pesticide Action Network.

The BCI is implementing standards in countries where cotton is grown, it doesn’t matter if it’s Pakistan, India or China. It’s an on-farm program; it’s implemented by a range of different groups in different countries, so a farmer can join the program and get better at using less water, less chemicals and be paid properly. It also aims to eliminate child labour.

IRW: What are some of the challenges for retailers when it comes to sourcing sustainable cotton?

AK: It’s not easy, but they could definitely source sustainable Australian cotton and cotton from BCI globally. Often, the minute you go to your spinning mill and tell them you want to use a different kind of cotton, they’ll say, ‘It’ll cost you twice as much’. We’ve been in those kinds of negotiations before where we’ve helped brands.

Often a decision about sustainable cotton sourcing is made at management level, then the procurement or sourcing people have to actually make it happen and they’re not always involved in the initial decisionmaking. So it’s almost like sustainability is a bolt-on on the business a long way down the track and it’s not been integrated in all the decisionmaking that happens right from the ground up, so it’s hard to implement.

If a procurement person is told, ‘You have to start sourcing this particular kind of cotton that doesn’t cost more but is also sustainable’, you might have to change everything about the supply chain – a supply chain you might not know that well or have great visibility on. That can be a real difficulty. That’s why it’s important for us to work with brands across different departments so everyone is brought on board right from the start, including the marketing people, so that everyone understands why we’re doing this.

Some brands try really hard around sustainability. It’s really difficult and supply chains are convoluted and complex and there are old relationships that need to change to do things differently. It’s not easy for brands to make a change.

H&M is one of the leading brands in terms of sustainable cotton sourcing. One hundred per cent of their cotton is from a sustainable source, whether it’s better cotton, recycled or organic. They’re often seen as one of the ‘nasty’ brands, but they’re a world leader and they’ve got a bold target around circular fashion so that every product they have will be circular by 2030.

IRW: What are some of the myths around cotton that you hear about in the media?

AK: We hear, ‘You should be growing hemp, not cotton’ and ‘Cotton’s thirsty’ – it’s just rubbish and lazy stuff that some journalist has dug up. If you research it, Australia’s cotton yields are the highest in the world – three times the world average – and we’re the most water-efficient growers. We’ve improved our water usage by 60 per cent in the last couple of decades and we’ve reduced pesticide use by 90 per cent.

IRW: Tell me about the farm tours that you run and what retailers have learned from them.

AK: It’s about connecting the two ends of the supply chain, the brands and retailers with the people producing the raw material. We ran a smaller version in the first year and it was so successful that we started hiring a 30-seat plane to fly people out for a day and introduce them to the farmers right on the cotton picker. We let them meet our researchers and hear about the research on climate change and water efficiency, then go to the cotton gin and see the first stage of processing. They often come away from the experience, just going, ‘Wow’. Some of these people have worked in cotton their whole careers – developing fabrics for 20 or 30 years – but when they go onto the farms, it’s like the lights come on. It’s an incredible experience for them.

Cotton Australia has hosted various retailers, including Bonds, on farm tours. Image supplied.

We’ve had the Bonds team. A girl came two years ago and said the farm tour was the best day she ever had at work. The head of Bonds came out and he said it was the best day of his working life – just coming and meeting our farmers to see what we’re doing. It’s pretty impressive.

We take brands out onto the farm so they can see for themselves what it’s all about – they can ask the questions, meet the farmers and be really sure of what they want to do before we even talk about sourcing.

We’ve done the farm tour a few times up to Narrabri and this year, we went to Warren, just west of Dubbo in New South Wales. This year, we did it as an overnighter, where our farmers came in, cooked up a whole lot of food on the campfire and shared food and stories. They talked to people about the impact of the drought on the community and how important cotton is to the community. One of our farmers is funding the Warren Youth Foundation, an Aboriginal program to help young people get back into work, and he’s funding that entirely off his own back. He’s an 80-year-old cotton farmer, spending all his days working on this program. There are so many great stories out there. There are a lot of women in our industry, too.

Over the five years, our farm tour has just grown. People are begging to come on it and I feel it’s helped to convert a lot of people who were sceptical about cotton. They hear all that stuff in the media, but then they come out and see it’s not right. They realise there are people in the industry and it’s not a scary unknown – they’re family farmers who have spent 20 years of their life transforming the way they grow cotton and they’re the most efficient farmers in the world.

Once you get to know the industry, you have a very different view. You just need to ask the questions – when you read or hear something negative about cotton, ask if they’ve ever been out on a cotton farm, because most people haven’t.

There are great possibilities here for brands and retailers, there are incredible stories to help sell their products. They can see cotton has got a great sustainability story and brands feel confident using our cotton. If they’re sourcing cotton from somewhere you don’t know and it’s been handpicked by children in Uzbekistan, it’s not good for their brand.

Having said that, one of the parts of our strategy is to lift the standard of cotton production globally, because we recognise we’re part of a big family of cotton producers. There are 300 million farmers in the world and there are some parts that aren’t doing it very well – like in Uzbekistan – so we’re funding a program in Pakistan where the Australian government and the BCI are putting in $1 milion to train an additional 200,000 farmers. We’re sharing our best-practice information with them and it’s made a huge difference to a lot of people’s lives and lifted them out of poverty, but in a safe way so they’re not using chemicals unsafely or hurting themselves. It’s a tremendous project. We’d like to have more opportunities like that, where we can potentially share information. We’re leading the world in terms of integrating pest management, where you use natural insects and predators to eat the bad bugs in the crop. We’re really good at that and it’s a really good skillset to share with places like Africa or India, where there are too many pesticides being used. We’d love to find partnerships where we can do more work like that.

IRW: What interesting projects are you working on with retailers right now?

AK: Today we took our team into a Bonds store, where they showed us what’s made from Australian cotton. Our relationship with Bonds has come so far and we’re now seeing Auastralian cotton products on the shelf. For years, our crop went overseas, got blended with some other cottons, lost its identity and if someone said, ‘I want to buy an Australian cotton product’, you actually couldn’t. Five years ago, you couldn’t buy an Australian cotton product, but now you can. Our farmers are so proud to see their product on the shelf, with a tag saying it’s Australian cotton.

Bonds is a really good example of a brand that’s made the decision to embed Australian cotton in their supply chain strategy for the long term. Every product they possibly can, they’re switching to Australian cotton and over half the products in-store are made from local cotton. It’s everywhere, and it’s made an enormous difference in quality. The customers have noticed too and it’s selling like you wouldn’t believe.

We’ve got a partnership with Ritemate, a workwear band that does uniforms for farmers. They’re now making all their uniforms with Australian cotton and it has gone down so well with the rural community.

We’re working with Country Road as well, and they’re sourcing Australian cotton for their ranges and we’re working with them about how to position that. Target’s probably our longest-serving partner – they’ve been doing men’s shirting and T-shirts, sheets and towels from Australian cotton. Customers noticed the difference in quality when they switched over.

We only want relationships with brands that want to do things with us for the long term and embed Australian cotton and sustainability in their supply chains. There’s no point for us to go to the effort of creating a fancy one-off capsule collection you won’t see again. It’s about building relationships and finding opportunities to work with brands on things they have trouble with, like textile waste.

IRW: You guys created the Cotton Converts project. What’s that about?

AK: It is a group of brands, cotton industry people that we pooled together to work out how we can find solutions to deal with cotton textile waste in Australia. The group includes the Salvos, NGOs and some of the commercial solutions.

Last year, we asked the brands, ‘What’s keeping you up at night?’ They said textile waste. We wanted to know what we can do to help with this. There a lot of bits and pieces of information out there, but no-one is working together.

We’ve got help from some of our scientists, who work in other waste streams in cotton – you’re basically dealing with the same stuff at the end of the day, whether it’s cotton-gin trash like fibres, sticks or leaves or the finished product. We also brought in our soil scientists, microbiologists and textile people.

We put them all in a room together and got them talking and it’s amazing what’s happened since. Lots of connections have been made and a lot of great collaborations are happening between the brands. We don’t know what’s going to happen to it or where it’s going to go, but we think we play an important role in bringing people together.

IRW: You’ve been running the Better Cotton Forum lately. What was the recent event like?

AK: Our speaker was Michael Kobori, the vice-president of sustainability at Levi’s. He’s a global thought leader around sustainability. We invited all our brands and retailers to hear him talk about what’s happening in sustainability at Levi’s and we had leading researchers give updates. Then we had a panel of farmers talking about sustainability and what it means to them and a panel of brands and retailers talking about BCI, sourcing and what they’ve learned. It was just a roundtable to get everyone talking. The feedback was incredible, and we think three brands are looking to sign up to BCI as a result of that, which is a great outcome.

We’ve also done a nice little luncheon in a cafe with the country manager for the BCI, and the brands and retailers loved being able to ask him questions. It got them talking about sustainability together and sharing information. They’re not competing on sustainability – they all want to lift standards. A lot of them said afterwards that it was the best industry function they’d ever been to, because people were just being honest. Sustainability is not a competition. We don’t see other cotton-growing countries as competitors. for the same reason.

IRW: How has the drought impacted the cotton industry?

AK: This year, our crop has halved. We’ve finished picking the crop now and if we don’t get any decent rain, the crop will halve again. We’re really quite desperate for some rain in the cotton-growing areas. That said, we still produce a quarter of a million tonnes of fibre – it’s more than enough for Australian brands and retailers. But our farmers are really hurting because they’re not growing as much crop as they’d like. These droughts always come along when there are high cotton prices. Farmers would love to be producing all they could at the moment so there’s a good price. They’ve really been deeply impacted by the drought. It’s pretty tough.

Because the bulk of the Australian cotton crop is irrigated and it’s from dams, we’re often six months behind the rest of the crops. When there’s no water, there’s no cotton. There’s sometimes the idea that even though there’s no water, cotton-growers are growing heaps of cotton and they’re doing well. It’s an annual crop that only gets planted once a year. Our farmers are really struggling and are looking at another tough season coming up.

IRW: What changes would you like to see around the way that consumers view cotton?

AK: We’d love to take everyone out to a cotton farm. That’s the dream – to get as many people as we can out there to connect with farmers. They’re so proud of this industry, so we’d like people to be proud of it and understand it.

I think consumers want to wear cotton – they love it. It’s a natural fibre, so as people become more socially and sustainably aware, they’re moving back to natural fibres. Brands are seeing that as well and with the move to circular fashion, cotton has a good place in those models. It’s biodegradable, recyclable and regenerative.

Our job is to connect consumers with the natural attributes of the product and to help them understand that it’s a good choice to make if they want to be sustainable and support farming families all around the world, not just Australian farms. Cotton is grown in 77 countries. There’s a real social side to it.

The competitor is not cotton from another country. It’s man-made fibre like polyester – that’s the enemy. We need to tell people the good story about cotton and get more people to swap over from polyester to cotton.

IRW: What would you say are some of the challenges around circular fashion right now?

AK: Recyclability is the biggest problem because right now, you can’t recycle a 100 per cent cotton product back into a 100 per cent recyclable product. The items we saw in Bonds were 30 per cent recycled product and 50 per cent virgin fibre, because the quality’s just not there. That’s a big problem.

I think synthetics are a huge problem for retailers trying to understand how they’re going to deal with that waste. They’re recyclable, but they just don’t break down in the natural environment. There are some interesting models out there, and brands are just trying to work out how to make it work at scale. We want to be involved in those conversations to help with science and innovation and solutions.

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