Transparency & Supply Chain 

Organic Cotton Picking in India

by Franziska Altenrath

«Come and see yourself» Ralf Hellmann, CEO of Dibella told me on just another occasion when I was bombarding him with critical questions about Organic Cotton from India. Cross-contamination from neighbouring farms, use of genetically modified seeds and the apparent possibilities of buying GOTS certificates were amongst the headlines causing me unrest.

Dibella has been pioneering organic and fair-trade cotton for their B2B home textiles ever since 2011. They provide hotel linen, towels, tablecloth and napkins in organic cotton qualities. Ralf Hellmann is convinced that Dibella has a responsibility for creating better supply chains that are beneficial to all persons involved. Conventional cotton farming causes harm such as farmer suicides, illnesses and debt spirals. The challenge though remains. Organic and fair-trade products are more expensive since they consider the true costs of a product. In a segment as price sensitive as the hospitality market increased price tags make a significant difference that not everyone is willing to buy into.

On Monday, 3rd December I boarded a plane to Visakapatnam to meet Ralf, his team and a few customers to experience an alternative to a supply chain commonly known for its non-transparency and non-accountability. To create trust and involvement Dibella and their NGO partner CHETNA ORGANIC regularly invite their customers to rural India. Chetna is a de-centralized organisation focusing on creating better livelihoods for farmers and their families. They do so by alleviating the side effects of the transition from conventional to organic farming. This way, they create better business opportunities, healthier working environments and independence from the big GMO-seeds companies, chemical fertilizer and pesticide producers as well as sky-rocketing interest rates providers (often there is one single conglomerate behind them all).

I did not need much convincing to join Dibella on their trip. We have debated long hours about sustainability criteria and ultimately came up with a list you can find here. However, we found out that there is no universal criteria but one: transparency. Companies, designers and developers unable or unwilling to answer critical questions are the best indicators for rotten sustainability practice. Certificates can be bought, materials can be hyped, but honesty and knowledge can hardly be pretended.

On top, both Alexandra and I strive to really understand the stories behind our products. In a globalized and industrialized world it is not easy to see the human elements in supply chains and business transactions - though there always is. Extracting and understanding those has been a priority for us from day one.

We took the train from Visakapatnam to Ambodala enroute to Bhandapuri village in Khalahadi district of the eastern Indian state, Odhisa. The couple-of-hours ride turned out to be a dream coming true: A Wes Anderson scene with red leather seating, heavy velvet curtains and the frequent appearance of a Chai Wallah in long, dark corridors. After a few hours the first cotton fields came into sight.

The last traces of tiredness fell apart when we arrived at our first stop. The students of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidhayala boarding school in Bandhapari welcomed us with an overwhelming, hearty and curious procedure introducing us gently into the ceremonious intensity of rural India. Next on the list was a training and research center run by Chetna Organic where farmers would receive know-how, best-practice examples, seeds and agricultural tools. The place further served as a testing ground for seeds and species diversification.

I encountered raw cotton for the first time. Fluffy and calmly white, puffy balls all around me. The Chetna team explained how natural fertilizing, biodiversity and local seeds could replace conventional practice if applied correctly. For example, “pest” insects could be diverted by plants with repelling characteristics placed next to the precious cotton. Humus fertilizer could be self-made from agricultural and food waste by farmers and communities. Seeds could be taken from “seed banks” and payed back with seed interest to seed custodians who traditionally happen to be women.

The next day we were welcomed at one of the Chetna villages, changed into cotton-picking gear and stepped into the fields. It soon became quite obvious that there is little romanticism about rural Indian farm life. The sun was burning, and the previously marvelled at fluffy cotton texture left its traces on our spoiled, soft skin.

And there was more to be concerned about: The villagers mightily amused by our clumsy efforts have been suffering from the effects of severe climate changes in the last years. Droughts, floods and irregular rains weighted heavily on their shoulders. There is no such thing as additional irrigation where we were. The whole harvest depends on the monsoon rains that usually happen between July and September. Too little rain results in droughts and insufficient produce, too much rain causes floods and endangers living spaces and fields as well as famers lives itselves. Another worst-case scenario is that of untimely rains. Once the cotton plants flower, untimely rains can destroy the outcome all together. If wet, cotton becomes useless for textile production.

There is something we need to speak about:
The first and most vulnerable victims of climate change are those leaving the smallest possible footprint themselves. There is no just distribution of cause and effect when it comes to climate change. It is driven by industrialization and luxurious lifestyles and paid for by the poorest.

Conventional cotton prices ignore the costs of suicides, illness, undrinkable water, infertile soils and uneducated children. Conventional cotton prices pretend the planet and its resources were infinite. Conventional cotton prices lead to conditions that look a lot like slavery.

I have all along been fascinated by the idea of added value for guests because of Organic Cotton and I still am. Healthy, modern, cosmopolitan lifestyles demand these sorts of qualities. However, we also need to talk about the inhumane conditions of conventional cotton farming. Ignoring will not do the job. The question is not about how to justify the price tag of organic but rather how to justify putting profit over people and bonuses over responsibility.

I have met strong and dedicated women, knowledgeable farmers and talented children during my visit in Odisha. I have seen poverty but also courage, happiness and kindness. The striking insight I gained is this: We can actually make a significant positive change in the life of others. Thanks to responsible companies such as Dibella, dedicated CEOs such as Ralf Hellmann and wise NGOs such as Chetna Organic we are at the very source of contributing to better livelihoods for the most vulnerable amongst us. How? By directing our decisions as responsible consumers and executives.

Summary: 

  • Franziska joined a producer of hospitality textiles to see where and how their organic and fair raw cotton is being planted and harvested
  • Organic and fair means to them: no GMO-seeds, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, non-volatile market prices, trainings, know-how sharing and support, further support of local schools
  • Problems of conventional cotton: Health issues, debt spirals, soil erosion
  • Climate change is the biggest threat to cotton farmers livelihoods
  • … but you better read the full article! 

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Becoming a cotton picking lady myself (with the help of them real ones)

 

My (poor but beautiful) harvest

Telling stories about German breakfast habits, clothes and how to get to school. 

Cotton picking lady in Kalahandi, Odisha