Archive - March 2011

The Crisis of Cotton: How Fair Trade Responds to Rising Costs

Artisan Lila preparing cotton thread for her loom.

If you haven’t heard already, you will soon feel it in your wallet. Rising cotton prices due to a global cotton scarcity, as well as the rise in production and labor costs are affecting the worldwide textile industry. In the last year, the world witnessed devastating natural disasters from the floods throughout Asia, Australia, and the United States. In addition, apparel market prices have not increased to keep up with the real cost of production. Many of us will see a 10-15% increase in the cost of clothing. From larger textile manufacturers, to small fair trade importers, companies are looking for alternative materials to continue production in the developing world. For fair trade companies, continuing sustainable partnerships is key to economic justice for artisans.

MayaWorks, a nonprofit fair trade organization working with approximately 125 indigenous artisans in Guatemala, has also been affected by the rise in cotton prices. MayaWorks’ artisans rely on high quality AZO-free cotton threads for the majority of their fair trade products. Many companies have discontinued cotton thread production due to the volatility of the market. Because it is our goal to provide steady, sustainable and fair work for our artisan partners, MayaWorks is responding with creative solutions.

MayaWorks is responding to the crisis by creating strategic short and long term production solutions in partnership with Guatemalan staff and artisans. When our major supplier shut its doors, Guatemalan staff immediately looked for other local thread cooperatives. Still, this is only a short term solution and cotton prices continue to increase. MayaWorks staff in the US and Guatemala have begun to collaborate with local design companies to source natural, reusable, and eco-friendly materials available in Guatemala. These materials include jute, recycled cotton, and natural seeds for jewelry. We have also met with local talent, including design consultants and university students. Other solutions include discontinuing production of larger, less popular woven items, and investing in smaller, functional products.

Other fair trade companies like Greenola are facing similar challenges. Jennifer Moran, owner of Greenola, sources fashionable, fair trade and eco-friendly products from South America. “We were unable to sell our REALLY popular cotton crocheted scarves as the price would have doubled!” In reaction to the global cotton scarcity, Greenola is focusing on smaller accessories and jewelry. They are also training partner cooperatives to learn new skills such as sewing, so that they have other types of work and focusing on products made of alpaca. Artisans are focusing on simpler designs, staying away from high detail, labor intensive items.

Sustainable Threads is a fair trade company working with artisans in India. Harish and his producer groups have also faced difficulty as much of their products are made with organically certified cotton. “Not only are the prices of cotton going up but also the labor costs for production are increasing at the same time.” “We plan to discontinue [some products]. In some cases we have reduced the design work on the product, so the prices are still workable to sell in the US market.” Sustainable Threads is also planning on working with recycled materials and products.

Fair trade companies will need to respond to this situation quickly, and look for alternative materials that are more eco-friendly and sustainable. There is no telling when the cotton crisis will subside, but many forecasters are predicting a difficult year ahead.

Written by Naomi Czerwinskyj, MayaWorks Product Manager