Woolies boost for organic farming

10 January 2008

South African clothing and food retailer Woolworths’ efforts to establish a local source for organic fibre for their clothing has been given a major boost, with the country’s first commercial scale trial crop of organic cotton being planted this summer.

Woolworths said in a statement this week that they have, together with the ComMark Trust, Cotton South Africa and the Organic Exchange, set up a pilot programme in which a number of farms in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces are growing organic cotton, under direction of the Agricultural Research Council’s Institute for Industrial Crops.

The ComMark Trust has committed in the region of R1-million to assist farmers with start-up costs, while the Organic Exchange will be providing technical support for farmers.

For its part, Woolworths has committed itself to supporting local farmers by buying the 30 tons of organic cotton expected to harvested by May this year.

“Woolworths is committed not only to promoting the use of organic cotton, but – and perhaps even more importantly – to fostering the growth of a local organic cotton industry,” said Woolworths group head of design, sourcing and technology Darren Todd.

“We firmly believe that South Africa offers tremendous potential for growing organic cotton and have been working very closely with the Organic Exchange and local organisations, including Cotton SA and the Agricultural Research Council, for some time now.”

According to the Organic Exchange, an international organisation dedicated to expanding global supplies of organic cotton, conventionally grown cotton consumes approximately 25% of the insecticides and over 10% of the pesticides used in the world. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is produced using only natural fertilisers, pesticides and phosphates, making it much healthier for the environment and safer for farm workers.

“The growing awareness among consumers of these advantages has sparked a worldwide move towards organic cotton,” Woolworths said.

At the annual Organic Exchange Conference in Montrey, California In November, Woolworths announced that they had become the world’s third-largest consumer of organic cotton, since introducing South Africa’s first clothing range made from 100% organic cotton in 2004. They are behind only two giant American corporations, discount department chain Wal-Mart and sportswear manufacturer Nike.

“Woolworths used 1.8-million kilograms of organic fibre in 2007 and 2.2-million kilograms is projected to be used in 2008,” Woolworths said.

However, all the organic cotton they currently use comes from outside South Africa – mainly from Uganda and India – a situation that the company is aiming to change through such initiatives.

Developing a new industry
The initiative is in line with Woolworths’ Good Business Journey strategy, which addresses the issue of sustainable growth within the context of changing social and environmental challenges facing both South Africa and the planet.

Included in the plan is the intention to accelerate efforts to reduce the environmental impact of products and processes by introducing more textile items made with sustainable fibres such as organic cotton, organic wool, bamboo, hemp, recycled polyester and soya, with the goal of increasing sales of organic-content clothing to more than R1-billion per year, a target the company is confident it will achieve by 2010.

“We are encouraged by the enthusiasm that is being shown by the farmers who are taking part in the trial and look forward to expanding local production in the future,” Todd said.

He added that the company was particularly excited by the prospects that organic cotton offers, not only as a rotational crop for Woolworths’ organic produce farmers, but also as a means for empowering South Africa’s previously disadvantaged small-scale farmers.

“Globally there is a huge demand for organic cotton,” Woolworths said. “Through this project, Woolworths will aim to facilitate market access so that farmers will, in due course, have access and opportunity to supply organic cotton at a global level.”

“As consumers are becoming more ‘green aware’, companies around the world are using organic cotton and other organic fibres to step more lightly on the planet,” said Organic Exchange programme director Rebecca Calahan Klein. “Organic fibre production must continue to increase at a rate of 40% per year to meet projected demand.

“We commend Woolworths for taking a leadership role in South Africa, and are pleased to be playing a role in the birth of South Africa’s own organic cotton pipeline.”

SAinfo reporter

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