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Cotton is the most widely-used natural fibre in the world. It is used most prominently in the global fashion and textiles industries, yet the majority of cotton production is inefficient and unsustainable.
In India, one of the world’s largest cotton and garment producers, many farmers are dependent on genetically modified crops. GMO seeds and the necessary pesticides may increase yields, but they also cost the local farmers more money, further eroding their slim profits. The genetically modified cotton seeds, such as Bt cotton were engineered to combat insects with their natural poison Bt-toxin. India is home to 17 milllion cotton farmers, and Bt cotton is used by 95% of them.
The use of Bt cotton has left many agricultural workers in debt. The seeds are 3-8 times the cost of regular seeds and as they lose their vitality after one harvest, they cannot be saved. Farmers often look to loan sharks to help them pay for these hybrids yet the dependence on good weather for the crops to yield high produce together with regulatory barriers have led to farmers finding themselves in cycles of dependency as prices continue to rise. Tragically, the consequences of crop failures have proved fatal for many small farmers. Each growing season the suicides of cotton farmers finding themselves in inescapable debt traps have made global headlines.
Wage disparities and inequality based on gender is another concern plaguing the sector. The Minimum Wages Act 1948 in India guarantees the payment of minimum wages to workers across a multitude of sectors, including agriculture. Despite this legislation, payment of minimum wages in the cotton production industry has long been a contentious issue. According to the International Trade Centre (ITC), women account for 70% of the cotton planting and 90% of the hand-picking yet the average income for women is 78% of that of their male counterparts. According to the UN’s Gender Equality Index, India currently ranks at 130 out of 188 countries, with gender equality one of the most pressing development challenges facing the country.
Further along the supply chain, labour practices are just as exploitative. According to a recent report by the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations, a Dutch nonprofit organization, and the India Committee of the Netherlands, forced labour, child labour and poor working conditions are common in Indian garment factories.
The use of organic cotton is an important tool for empowering women in the cotton sector. Women can work in the fields without exposure to the health risks that accompany the incorrect use of harmful chemical pesticides. The seeds and manure that are required for organic cotton cultivation are much cheaper than the synthetic products and can be locally sourced. According to a recent survey carried out by the ITC, women working in cooperatives in organic cotton are more involved in decision-making along the chains of production. Unfortunately organic cotton represents roughly 1% of the total cotton production therefore its impact in empowering women and promoting equality is limited.
Looking for fair trade certification of cotton products is another way of helping to empower women in the cotton production industry. The fair trade product standards prohibit the use of many hazardous pesticides and the guaranteed minimum price producers are paid for fair trade cotton ensures that their basic costs of production are covered, leading to farmers having steadier and higher incomes.
White & Green is Ireland’s first fully certified organic and fair trade cotton bedding company. In an industry renowned for huge mark-ups, White & Green are providing luxurious, organic cotton bedding at an affordable price. But, more importantly, as a fair trade-certified company they are a bedding brand committed to poverty alleviation in the local Indian communities they work with, where workers are paid fair wages in a safe environment free from poisonous chemical pesticides.
TheCircular caught up with co-founder of White & Green, Rebecca Winckworth, to discuss the importance of ethical consumption and sowing seeds of change in an industry where inequality remains a major problem.
A few years ago, I volunteered with the NGO Suas in India. Whilst living there, I got my first glimpse into the textiles industry. I never knew the devastation caused by fast fashion until I met with garment factory workers there in Delhi. They told me about the cruel working conditions- long hours, regular beatings, no breaks, unsafe equipment etc, and to be honest, I was horrified. All the clothes they were making were for brands that I buy from in Dublin! I came home totally bewildered, thinking, “Ok, I don’t want to buy from these shops anymore. I don’t want to fund this vicious cycle of poverty and support brands that are not doing anything to improve the situation.” But then, I didn’t know where to shop anymore! So, I went on to study a Master’s degree in International Development at the London School of Economics focusing on gender, labour rights and social enterprise. After this, along with my Mum Sari, and my sister Danielle, I started White & Green. We are really proud to be fully Organic and Fairtrade certified.
We are an all-female company and we are supported by many wonderful female mentors. So, it is really important to us that White & Green’s entire supply chain reflects our passion for gender equality. When looking for suppliers, we spent months speaking by phone and email and then we went traveling to India to meet with different companies. Finally, we found the perfect company for us. From farming cooperative right through to management level in our factory, women and men are paid equally and treated equally in every respect. In fact, they practice positive discrimination. For example, women in our farming cooperatives are given extra training through women’s self-help groups. This involves training that empowers women in their entire life, both at home with their families and in their work as farmers. This is amazing to see first hand- I was just in India in November shooting a short film about our cotton farmers- and women told me how these training schemes have given them confidence to voice their opinions and make important decisions in terms of household finances and community-level plans. In our factory, most of the managers are female and they are a joy to deal with. At the executive level, the directors of the farming cooperative and the factory are both male and they are two of the most fantastic people I know. It is really fulfilling for myself and my sister Danielle that as young female entrepreneurs, these men treat us with the utmost respect and really value our relationship with them. I’m not sure you would even find that level of professionalism in business in Ireland!
Yes, I had only read about this before actually visiting the cotton farms last year and so I was really keen to hear first hand from farmers what the damage really is like in relation to pesticide use. They told me how they used to suffer from terrible migraines, skin disease, depression, lung problems and cancer before they switched to organic through our cooperative. Not only this, but non-organic cotton production destroys the soil quality and then the yield declines massively. This means that farmers have no crop to sell, massive debt from buying the GM seeds, chemical pesticides etc and no income.
White & Green is the first/only fully certified organic Fairtrade cotton bed sheets in the Irish market. There are a handful of other companies doing a couple of products in organic or Fairtrade, but no one else it entirely like us. I suppose this is because it takes so much more work and it is more expensive for us. We could have gone on Alibaba.com and found a supplier that was cheap and created a standard bed sheets company. Instead, we have invested a lot of our own money, travelled back and forth to India and created an entirely organic Fairtrade company. It also means that we pay extra premiums to our suppliers for investment in the local communities and we pay fees to Fairtrade every year. When you add up all the extra time, effort and finances, you can see why other companies decide not to do the same! But we are so passionate about being sustainable and about creating the best quality products for our customers, that we don’t mind going the extra mile! And very importantly, we make sure that our products do not cost more for the consumer. By going directly to the factory and cutting out all middlemen, we actually pass on savings with great prices for our customers.
Yes and no…Most people just want really good quality for a good price and they want it quickly. Thankfully, we can provide products with all of these attributes! Our products are beautiful, luxurious and also affordable. Then on the other hand, we do have a small number of people who are really, really passionate about ethical consumption and they are delighted to discover us. In between these two types of consumers, you do have a growing number of people, who have seen a documentary or an article or two, and are interested in knowing more about how they can shop responsibly, but they don’t want any inconvenience. So, with these people, if you give them a simple option between ethical and non-ethical, with not much price difference, then they will absolutely go for ethical. Shifting consumer consciousness is a slow movement, but it definitely is starting to happen, just like we have seen with the food industry in the past few years