Native cotton: a sustainable alternative?

Sandra Blok of Via India Fashion highlights a sustainable alternative to regular cotton in India: native cotton.
Native cotton: a sustainable alternative?

Via India Fashion founder Sandra Blok talks about her search for sustainable alternatives in India's clothing industry. One initiative immediately caught the eye: the reintroduction of native Indian cotton. Could this be an interesting alternative for the sustainable clothing industry?

What is the difference between native and regular cotton?

"97% of India's cotton fields contain genetically modified cotton, known as Bt-cotton. A hybrid species descended from an American cotton plant that produces more cotton flowers per plant than the native plants. The yield of Bt-cotton is therefore considerably higher. But it does require pesticides and fertilizer. And especially a lot of water. That's why some people label cotton as "unsustainable". Native cotton, on the other hand, is adapted to local conditions and in that sense the more sustainable variant. It is a plant that thrives in dry areas and can live of rainwater, even when it rains little.

In addition, farmers do not need to use pesticides or artificial nutrients. Cultivating native plants helps maintain a natural ecological balance in the soil. The only problem is that very few of the hundreds of native species remain since the introduction of Bt-cotton in the 1990s. And yet, whoever seeks, finds it.

Where did you find this native cotton?

In the state of Gujarat in northwest India, I stumbled upon a fantastic initiative by farmers who want to put their local Kala cotton back on the map as the sustainable alternative to modified cotton. They were keen to protect their land from dehydration and the effects of monoculture and agricultural poisons. After a lot of effort, they now have organic certification. Even though Kala cotton has been grown entirely organically as standard for thousands of years. The result is now that they get a good market price for their product. Incidentally, there are initiatives in more places in India to re-grow native cotton varieties.

Does growing native cotton also contribute to a better life for farmers and textile workers?

The lives of textile workers and farmers can change for the better if native cotton becomes more popular. India is in the top 3 of largest cotton producers, and there is a huge manufacturing industry. Textile workers work in hundreds of thousands of cotton mills, often under appalling conditions, far from their villages and families. This is different from native cotton. They can spin and weave this at home. They can also spread the risk of loss of income by keeping cattle at the same time. For the farmers, they pay about 4 to 8 times as much for Bt-cotton seed than for native seed.

In addition, they need pesticides and fertilizer: a huge investment that they can only pay for with loans. In case of one or more failed harvests, they see their income evaporate and become entangled in a web of debts and usurious interest rates that many of them are unable to pay back. Cultivating native cotton is safe, does not affect their health, makes them part of the original local economic chain again and brings the chance of a towering debt burden back to zero.

''Anyone who now jumps in native cotton is a trendsetter.''

Is native cotton a possible alternative for textile importers?

At the moment, native cotton is a good alternative for the slow fashion market that works with modest print runs and collections that last longer than a few months. Native cotton is not available in huge quantities and cannot be fully industrially processed into textiles. So it is certainly not for everyone. Not yet at least, because it looks like the trend with native cotton is not going to stop now. Anyone who jumps in now is, in any case, a trendsetter.''

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