How gender equality is driving ethical and sustainable cotton farming

Khaileshben is one of hundreds of female cotton workers in rural India who is spearheading the shift to ethical and sustainable cotton farming. Over the last three years, her own transformation from being a diffident woman to an expert in better farming practices has helped her family nearly double the cotton yield on their ten-acre land, while cutting expenses and reducing exposure to chemical pesticides.

cottonconnect-women-in-cotton-1-jpegHer story resonates with many other agricultural women in Western India who have joined hands with CottonConnect to show that gender equality in the cotton value chain is critical to meeting sustainable clothing demands. A new report, Planting the Seed: A Journey to Gender Equality in the Cotton Industry reveals that training and empowering women farmers increases profitability, improves fieldworkers’ livelihoods, and reduces the impact of cotton production on the environment.

The Sustainability and the Gender Equality Issue in Cotton Farming

About half of the world’s clothing and fashion depends on cotton,(ii) but consumers rarely discern the heavy environmental impact the industry has. Cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops and consumes amounts easily considered unsustainable (about 2,700 litres of water for the cotton needed to make one t-shirt).(iv) Traditional cotton production also uses highly harmful agrochemicals that have detrimental effects on the soil and pose health risks to farmers.

Cotton production underpins the livelihood of nearly 250 million people worldwide.(ii) In India, the second largest producer of cotton in the world, women account for 70% of the planters and 90% of the harvesters.(i) Most times, however, they are paid less than the men are (or even go unpaid), do not hold decision-making roles, and are rarely landowners. Although fieldwork is largely considered unskilled, the knowledge that people ‘on the ground’ possess can effect the change towards increasing the productivity, quality, and sustainability of cotton.

CottonConnect and the Women in Cotton Programme 


CottonConnect is an organisation that links clothing brands and retailers to rural cotton farms through an ethical, sustainable, and transparent supply chain. The organisation took the initiative to work with women who are an important, but often neglected stakeholder in the cotton supply chain. The ‘Women in Cotton’ programme trains female workers in agronomic skills and business management alongside health, education, and labour rights.

The initial results are impressive. Profits increased by as much as 40% and yields grew by 16%.(i) Women were able to influence an over 15% reduction in water consumption and a 43% cutback on the use of chemical pesticides.(i) In addition to improving workers’ economic and health conditions, the programme has seen the emergence of outspoken and confident women who have taken control of the purse strings and are investing in a meaningful future for their families.

In collaborating with the UK’s big retailer Primark and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), CottonConnect has trained 1, 251 female smallholders through classroom sessions, in-field training, and learning groups. This initial success has spurred an extension of the programme for a further six years, during which time it is expected to reach an additional 10,000 female farmers.

Impact Beyond Cotton Fields 

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report Gap 2015 report, it may take an astonishing 118 years to close the gender pay gap in business. The success of the ‘Women in Cotton’ programme is a step towards making change at the grassroots level for issues that exist at various social, economic, and political levels worldwide. Women like Khaileshben who feel more empowered and valued in their new roles become proponents of education, equal rights, and healthy living. Retailers that partner with organizations like CottonConnect benefit from a market-driven approach to ethical, sustainable, and profitable cotton supply chains.

The impact is holistic and multidimensional, addressing at least five of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – gender equality, responsible production, good health and well-being, quality education, and decent work and economic growth.











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