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. However, a range of current challenges are limiting the predicted growth of the sector, and calling into question its reputation as a sustainable procurement market.
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 (CmiA) 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 does 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. This gallery demonstrates the challenges that can arise in cotton growing and textile production:
- Cultivation of the raw material
In Africa, 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 deseeded cotton is then pressed into bales. The working conditions for factory workers are 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 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 endanger the health of the textile workers. The water generally 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 are not fairly paid. 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.
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 fair wages, 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 fair 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 keep the ecological impact as low as possible.
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
In the "Bottom Up” project, Cotton made in Africa is cooperating with MVO Nederland, the Danish Ethical Trading Initiative, and the Dutch organisation Solidaridad. The project receives funding from the European Union.