BOTTOM UP: ANCHORING ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL STANDARDS IN THE ETHIOPIAN TEXTILE INDUSTRY
The cotton and textile market is one of the most important growth markets for the African continent. Some of the biggest names in the fashion industry have started sourcing clothing and textiles from Ethiopia. Purchasing managers appreciate the country's low production costs, tax breaks, brand new clothing factories and the relatively short distance to Europe. The upcoming clothing and textile industry creates important job opportunities for the East African country, from which women in particular can benefit. Others are concerned about the low wages in Ethiopia. What are the opportunities and risks of procurement in Ethiopia? And how can you ensure that you buy in an ethically responsible way? These questions will be addressed by the Bottom Up Project, an EU-funded development programme launched by Solidaridad, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), DIEH and MVO Nederland.
What and who stands behind my clothes - from field to fashion?
Was the cotton artificially irrigated, and does the female cotton farmer earn enough from the crop to send her children to school? Did the workers in the textile factory get sufficient breaks, and were enough fire prevention measures put in place in the factory? Many consumers do not know where their clothes come from, and under what conditions the cotton was grown and processed into textiles. For this reason, it is difficult to judge whether their clothing was produced in a socially responsible and environmentally friendly way.
In 2019, to change this situation, Cotton made in Africa came together with Solidaridad and MVO from the Netherlands, and the Danish Ethical Trading Initiative, to start the Bottom Up project. We work together on environmentally friendly and socially responsible clothing production in Ethiopia, which can be traced from the cotton plant to the finished T-shirt, creating more transparency about our clothing.
Which challenges can textile production pose for people and the environment?
Do you remember the fire in the Tazreen factory in 2012, and the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013? Many people died in those disasters, clearly demonstrating how important it is to ensure good and safe working conditions. The following challenges can arise in cotton growing and textile production:
- Cultivation of the raw material
In most cotton cultivation areas such as the African production countries, mostly smallholder farmers grow cotton on their small plots of land, handling every step until the harvest laboriously by hand. The work is hard and the conditions are uncertain. If no appropriate training is provided, dangerous pesticides are used without protection, and water is used inefficiently.
- Processing the raw material
After the harvest, the cotton fibre is separated at the cotton ginneries. The ginned cotton is then pressed into bales. The working conditions for factory workers are sometimes not easy either - safety and sustainability in the workplace are not always guaranteed.
- From the raw material to the finished fabric
The next step is to spin the cotton into thread, which is then woven or knitted into fabric. Precarious working conditions are also found at this stage. Women have rarely or no prospects of promotion, they are often underpaid, and they may even be sexually intimidated.
- Further processing of the fabric
The finished fabric is dyed and washed. This requires the use of chemicals that could endanger the health of the textile workers. The water often flows away unfiltered.
- From the fabric to the end product:
Finally, the fabric is cut, pressed, and sewed to make finished textiles. This step is also carried out manually. This work is almost always done by women. They normally work very long hours and payment is not always fair. Sexual harassment by male managers is not uncommon.
PREVENTING EXPLOITATION AND ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE
Cotton made in Africa has been active in Sub-Saharan Africa for years, training smallholder farmers in sustainable methods of cotton cultivation, and creating safe working conditions in the cotton ginneries. Ethiopia is one of the eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where CmiA works. Fashion labels and textiles companies are increasingly buying clothes from Africa – among others from Ethiopia – due to the low labour costs and low taxes. This is essentially positive, as the textile sector creates jobs and the potential for development. Additionally, it keeps more of the value creation in the same country.
WHICH AIMS DOES THE PROJECT PERSUE?
Together we pursue the goal of implementing environmental and social standards in the Ethiopian cotton and textile industry. Among other things, this means creating more transparency in Ethiopia's cotton and textile production and improving the quality of production. In two cotton growing regions of Ethiopia, sustainable verified cotton is to be cultivated, from which cotton farmers and employees will benefit. As part of our project, we also want to provide improved ecological and social services, which will benefit textile workers. A special focus is that the cotton harvested in Ethiopia is processed locally and transparently in order to create more added value locally. The sale of the textiles is geared both to the local market and to international trade - especially the EU market. Overall, the aim is to increase the general public's knowledge and awareness of the opportunities and challenges in the textile sector.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WEAR?
Together with our Bottom Up partners, we vigilantly accompany this development. Our aim is to create a sustainable basis for textiles from Ethiopia, as we are convinced that this development must be accompanied by trainings for farmers, secure working conditions, and environmentally friendly production. In this way, we want to ensure that the swift rise of the Ethiopian textile industry does not lead to exploitation and damage to the environment. For this reason, Cotton made in Africa has further extended its work in Ethiopia since 2019 in cooperation with partners. In the Bottom Up project, we work with our partners to train cotton farmers and textile workers on sustainability, and we promote safe and sustainable working conditions throughout the textiles value chain. Through our project partner, Solidaridad, we also use lobbying work and workshops to ensure that important local government bodies support the project. We also want to ensure that international fashion companies know and support the project, as this should significantly help to create a sustainable textile industry. If fashion companies give customers a chance to have a look behind the scenes, this will enable consumers to wear garments that actively support the people behind our clothes, and reduce the ecological impact.
WHAT CAN YOU DO YOURSELF?
Would you also like to contribute to a sustainable cotton and textile industry? If so, look for sustainability seals like the Cotton made in Africa label on the product, to support cotton farmers in Africa. And ask your favourite brand how their products are produced. That is how you can make an active contribution to help anchor environmental and social standards in the textile sector.
ABOUT THE BOTTOM UP PROJECT
Picture: © Jaimi Nieli