The cotton industry wreaks havoc on our ecosystem, from its extreme water needs and often heavy use of pesticides, to the socio-economic effects on cotton farmers who struggle with economic despair and toxic health effects of agrochemicals.
Ruchita Chhabbra, our next pathbreaker, Country Programs Manager at The Sourcery, manages the sustainable cotton sourcing programs by connecting brands, retailers and suppliers directly with leading growers (farmers) who are committed to advancing commercial and environmental excellence.
Ruchita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about developing a commitment towards sourcing sustainable cotton by working for organizations that are adopting a transformative approach to the organic cotton supply chain.
For students, skills can always be developed, but it’s your values that will take you far. Values are something that you stand for — something that you believe in strongly. It is the reason why you do things.
Ruchita, can you walk us through your background?
Hi, I grew up in Delhi and with both parents working in government jobs. Basically, me and my siblings were left to manage our time and explore our hobbies on our own.
I was always creative and forever interested in recycling (I don’t know why!). Very often, I found myself using waste-material like newspapers and left-over straws etc. for art, making little best-out-of-waste projects at home. Just like all Indian households then, things were not thrown away till they had lived multiple life cycles within the household and were completely unusable. While I enjoyed working on my recycled-art projects, it also made me wonder as a child, what happens to all this junk when it is thrown away, where does it all go… from small junk to big…from food waste to out-of-use vehicles, is it all just lying dead somewhere…and why was so much produced in the first place..
We didn’t have the internet then to get immediate information, and recycling/land-fills/ environmental abuse were not very hot topics then.
So, these thoughts remained at the back of my mind, but made me considerate of my own surroundings.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I was very interested in specializing in a creative field. After completing my Bachelors in Arts, I went on to study Post Graduate Diploma in Knitwear Design and Technology at National Institute of Fashion Technology.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
My family and my interests were my main influencers and mentors too. My parents were willing to support me in any career stream I would choose, and that gave me open hands to make my decisions. My mom and one of my siblings were very creative and that got passed on to me as well. I also picked beliefs and traits like compassion and determination from my siblings and diligence from my parents.
In the words of motivational speaker Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
The people you spend the most time with shape who you are. And the conversations in my house were all about never hesitating from hard work, dedication towards your work, minimizing wastage of resources, recycle + reuse, and compassion plus respect towards others. Today, after moving careers, I realize that all these beliefs that I was brought up with played a major role in all of my decision making.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I will be honest, I actually did not plan my career meticulously. I went with my heart and followed my interests and just went with the flow. I am not recommending that though; I took that route because in hindsight I did not have this comprehension then, on bridging what I want, what is possible practically and what it takes to make it happen!
Creativity and dressing up excited me a lot (we were three sisters and along with my mother, all four of us enjoyed shopping and dressing up). So, I felt a great pull towards the fashion industry, not realizing what was behind the scenes.
I realized in fashion school that though I was creative, being a successful designer needed another level of passion. I also learnt that I had a combination of skills & interests in manufacturing, understanding business and a bit of salesmanship. I therefore decided to take the route of fashion business, which involved mastering merchandising, marketing, and sourcing.
I was clear, I wanted to spend the first 3-5 years with manufacturers to really understand the production floor and all aspects/processes of manufacturing on-the-ground. I wanted a reasonable understanding of fashion manufacturing before I jumped into the business side of fashion. My first internship was with a circular knitting & CMT factory in Noida, followed by working with renowned manufacturing houses in the initial years, in Delhi NCR and Punjab and later working with reputed buying agencies & trading houses, for global apparel retailers.
Having witnessed the laborious working hours of labourers, with bare minimum or just-about-ok working conditions on the shop floor (having facility-compliance always in place though) and getting visibility into the vast gap between the labor wages at one end and profits at the other end of supply chain, left me perplexed. I could not understand the business policies that constantly needed the global brands to negotiate, season by season and push suppliers to reduce prices even further and simply turn a blind eye to the holistic scenario. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the brands or retailers; after all I earn my living from this industry (including brands), but I do feel the some of the policies in our industry could be more labor-centric.
Not that I supported or encouraged the unreasonable tactics from any supply chain stakeholder/s, but I did wonder quite often, if this is how low the product-prices are, what will really reach the workers. Personally, I felt, some benefits from the profits made should reach the labor/workers in an appropriate form.
At the same time, I also sensed that stakeholders at this end of the supply chain (manufacturing side) also shy away from sharing the brutal truth of challenges faced on the ground, along with hardships faced by workers, with the brands/retailers almost always projecting ideal circumstances (hunky-dory or negligible problems) on the ground.
Initially the back-stage of this so-called glamorous industry disturbed me and I tried changing my industry. By now, I had understood fashion/glamour comes with a price and hence wanted to do something completely different, something warm and nurturing, nurturing myself and others.
I studied Early Childcare and became a Montessori teacher in the United Kingdom, completely different from what I was doing 😊. But, soon I had to come back to India for personal reasons. I was a confused soul, switching back and forth, between careers and countries. I had learnt some major lessons in life that emotions and economics, both were undeniably important parts of one’s lives and I wanted to tend to both in my life. So, I made the choice of returning to the fashion world.
I re-started with conviction of managing my emotions and still not going beyond my own beliefs and values. I was performing fine till mid management level, but after that I stagnated, because I tried hard to put my point across, but it did not matter more than the numbers.
How did you get your first break?
I would call CottonConnect my desired breakthrough, an opportunity that came through an industry network.
Joining CottonConnect in 2016, I entered the sustainable cotton domain.
CottonConnect is an enterprise that helps global brands source more fairly and sustainably by creating more robust, resilient and successful cotton and raw material supply chains.
Farming communities face a range of social and environmental challenges, which make it hard to sustain cotton production for the long-term.
Meanwhile, brands and retailers are under increasing pressure to deliver more ethically sourced products that consumers want.
Reimagining the future for supply chains – and securing a sustainable, traceable and transparent supply – is vital.
That’s where CottonConnect comes in.
Their local agronomist teams provide farmers with the training, education and tools they need to improve their productivity, income and profitability. They connect the whole supply chain – from farmers and ginners to weavers and garment producers, that creates a more transparent and robust supply chain that brands can have confidence and trust in. And that’s not all. They create bespoke programmes that meet the needs of the entire supply chain – from farmers to brands.
My role at CottonConnect was to manage and monitor sustainable cotton programs (Organic, BCI, REEL) and strengthen relations between stakeholders, ranging from brands/retailers/donors to agricultural groups, textile supply chain partners to academia, and other organizations at national and global level.
Working closely with local agronomist teams and visiting cotton farmers in their villages and fields was the most immersive experience of witnessing the origin of the cotton supply chain.
Most brands/retailers in my industry experience of more than a decade till then, had visibility from manufacturer to weaver to spinner. CottonConnect helps brands and retailers connect, beyond the spinner, with the farmers at the other end of the supply chain.
Most of us on the buying side think supply chain starts from fibre procurement and processing, and in our limited vision, we worked on a 1-year supply chain calendar, from fibre to fashion. But I now learnt that the supply chain starts from cotton seed production (before sowing), at least 2.5 years before a fashion collection is retailed in stores.
Starting from cotton seed production, the crop cycle takes a whole year, from land preparation to sowing to harvesting and then extends for another whole year of fibre procurement, processing, manufacturing, shipping and retailing.
Working with CottonConnect helped me gain rich experience in the last leg of the supply chain, or rather the first leg of supply chain, up close and personal. My perception of the supply chain had now expanded from “fibre-to-fashion” to “farm-to-fashion”.
Sharing a few snippets from my experience at CottonConnect.
- KappAhl – Make if feel right episode 4 – Sustainable Cotton
By now, I had taken a fancy for cotton, sustainable cotton and especially for organic cotton. So, next up, I went on to work with Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA).
OCA is the only multi-stakeholder organisation fully dedicated to organic cotton.
India is the largest producer of organic cotton, but organic cotton accounts for less than 1% of the world’s cotton. This is why OCA was created! To accelerate the process through systemic improvements and prosperity for the farmers and the sector as a whole!
There is a need to address the root-causes of the problems that have held back the progress of the farmers and that’s the role OCA has been playing. OCA identifies root-causes hindering the growth of organic cotton supply ( i.e. the limited availability of organic seed, little or no guarantee from buyers of an organic premium, organic premium not reaching the farmers, cotton projections coming late in the game) and takes action with other actors in the supply chain to, implement much needed solutions. Many interventions focus on farm level activities but knowledge is leveraged from the full spectrum of the cotton industry, from brands to academia to research organizations to agriculture experts to supply chain partners. I was in the very middle of this constructive commotion and yes, my horizons expanded even further.
Finally, there was an organization, which was out there, voicing the challenges faced at grass-root level, and engaging with leading brands to help them understand the gravity of the situation.
I saw a different side of the brands, they were receptive, they understood the problem and were excited to be a part of, invest in and support the solution driven programs.
“We support farmers because they’re the catalysts for this change – the stewards of the land. When you support the farmer, you strengthen the sector, and you safeguard the planet.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The challenge I felt was inside my head. I felt that, in the fashion business world, there was not much attention ever given to worker’s growth, benefits, and empowerment.
It was like a fashion show- flashy and fancy on the outside; grim, chaotic and laborious on the inside.
I was not great at hardcore negotiation! I was not an aggressively numbers-driven employee. This brought me a lot of challenges with my managers / management.
I continued to try to develop the skill of aggressive negotiation, but it wasn’t natural to me.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I currently work with The Sourcery where I apply all the shebang I learnt in my previous experience, from fashion business and farm-to-fashion, towards developing and executing a business-model combined with sustainability. (I believe this should always have been the case).
At Sourcery, sustainability is not a separate agenda, outside of business or even parallel to business. It is an imperative and integral part of business.
Making a commitment to source ‘more sustainable fibre’ requires more than just signing a pledge, setting fibre volume targets or collecting certificates. It requires turning ambition into deliberate action by adopting a transformative new approach to sourcing and securing sustainable fibre.
The Sourcery connects brands, retailers and suppliers directly with leading growers (farmers) who are committed to advancing commercial and environmental excellence.
The Sourcery is all about transparent, fair and efficient transaction in sustainable trade from grower to consumer.
My role as Country Programs Manager is yet again to manage the sustainable cotton sourcing programs. But what I actually do is, convert the broader goals, strategies and visions into tangible tasks, set up realistic goals and work towards achieving those goals, through mentoring from my managers and support from colleagues.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” That is how I feel (at Sourcery), I feel completely aligned with Sorcery’s founders’ vision of transforming sustainable sourcing and bringing this new approach forward as mainstream business models.
What is a typical day in your work like?
A typical day in my work life involves engaging with multiple stakeholders like international clothing retailers, manufacturers/ supply chain partners, farm-based organizations and working towards building collaborations around sustainable cotton sourcing business models.
We also engage with experts across industries, like professionals from agricultural background, social development sector, textile supply chain, academia representatives, research scholars, international ngos, social entrepreneurs, supporting them and/or learning from them about the existing and foreseen challenges on the ground in the cotton industry and how can those be addressed, making it a win-win situation for farmers, workers and the industry.
It’s a complex equation and it takes a lot from many stakeholders to work continuously on the challenges. Covid has only added to the challenges in the past two years but has made people realize the importance of saving the planet, if mankind is to be saved.
What are the skills you bring to this role?
The skills, the knowledge, the know-how I bring, combined with my beliefs and values resonate with the work I do now, one hundred percent.
What I love about this job is that I work with a set of industry professionals who are working on-the-ground, beyond words, beyond social media, beyond soft-knowledge-exchange, day-in and day-out and continuously putting in efforts to “make-a-difference”, even if it’s a small difference.
What were some of the defining moments in your line of work?
There’s not one, but a few defining or inspiring moments I would like to share, that left a huge impact on me. Here are a few, and I am certain, it will leave a mark on your soul, as it left on mine.
Each one of the below incidents moved my heart and made me cry.
Sustainability’s three pillars: people, planet and profit, all make sense to me now.
The Rana Plaza incident happened in early 2013, where many lives were lost because a huge factory in Bangladesh collapsed one fine morning, taking down several lives & leaving so many injured. Inside factories like Rana, workers labored long hours, often in unsafe conditions, earning an average of approximately $50 a month—less than the cost of just one of the pairs of pants they were assembling for sale in Europe and the United States.*
Like everyone else in the industry, I was in shock too.
“All were a complicit participant in the creation of an environment that ultimately led to the deaths and maiming of thousands”, said Clean Clothes Campaign. Yet the problem was far wider than just those brands. It was a systemic problem. In a sense every shopper choosing clothes on the basis of cheapest price was complicit. **
Things have improved, though not enough. Eight years on, the fundamental problems in global supply chains – the disconnect between profits, accountability and responsibility – remains.**
Here’s the problem illustrated in terms of a T-shirt. According to Clean Clothes Campaign – an organisation backed by 230 unions, non-government organisations and research bodies – just 0.6% of the retail price of a t-shirt goes to the worker. The factory owner takes 4% as profit, the brand label takes 12%, but the retailer takes 59%.
These numbers are, of course, averages. They don’t claim to be the exact profit distribution for every shirt. But they do give a fair idea of how the system functions. So, the next time you see a t-shirt for less than $10, you should think about how much the manufacturer made it for.
I want you to imagine, if a skilled worker who is officially a part of the system, is taking home that little, imagine what a farmer is taking home, who is not even formally in the system.
India’s ‘Cancer Train’***
The most remarkable feature of this train is that 60% of its population are cancer patients of all ages who come from all across Punjab. This train has gained its name from a sudden increase in cancer cases in Punjab that many blame on pesticide use, growing pollution and hardly any response by authorities.
The patients on this train are mostly small farmers. It is in this Malwa region that scores of farmers and their families are coming to grips with cancer and numerous health problems due to the lush fields hiding a scary tale.
Malwa, which is also Punjab’s cotton belt, requires the use of a startling amount of pesticides. Reportedly, farmers in this region use 15 different pesticide sprays. The unregulated and excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have resulted in farmers and their families living in a cesspool of toxicity. Even worse is the fact that farmers also end up using the empty pesticide cans to store not only water but also food, which get contaminated with high heavy-metal toxicity.
The residents have little choice than to drink highly polluted water or take bath in tap water that is sourced from canals where industrial effluents are discharged with impunity.
Many of the farmers blame the success of the 1970’s Green Revolution for their sorry state right now. It was during that period that the farmers had switched to a combo formula of high yield practices (seeds-fertilizers-pesticide-water) from traditional farming methods.
This is what farmers’ lives are.
Farmer suicides in India
Nearly 4,00,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2018, if we collate the data from the annual reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on “Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India”. What happened to them? How do the farmers survive hunger, debts, sudden and extreme climate events, price volatility, poverty, structural inequalities? What drives them? What are their – if at all they have any – dreams?
A farmer lives and dies in debt, exploited by the market and the political class, troubled by farms, where even when production goes up the income rarely does.
Around the mid-1990s, a liberalized and globalized economy engulfed many unsuspecting farmers in problems that were beyond their comprehension, triggering suicides that surged in the early 2000s.
India’s economy was fueled by sectors other than agriculture, like services.
Local farmers’ markets were invaded by global markets, like that of cotton or food. Rapid upward economic mobility of sections of the population was creating newer inequalities.
Cotton farmers, for example, saw their production costs multiply many times as energy, inputs and fertiliser prices soared. While generally the cost of living – health, education, and so on – went up, their real incomes stagnated.
Economic distress continues to haunt the peasantry, particularly small and marginal farmers in rain-fed regions.
Excerpted from Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis, Jaideep Hardikar, HarperCollins India.
How does your work benefit society?
Cotton is the fabric of choice for so many styles and uses; it’s hard to imagine life without it. But in the face of a changing world and climate, with issues like water scarcity, decreasing soil quality, and increased pressures on agricultural land, we can’t take the future supply of cotton for granted.
The cotton industry wreaks havoc on our ecosystem and is socio-politically problematic. From its extreme water needs and often heavy use of pesticides, to the cotton farmers who struggle with economic despair and toxic health effects of agrochemicals, it’s no wonder cotton is often called the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop. Cotton pesticides & fertilizers contaminate our land, air, food and drinking water.
Millions of cotton farmers worldwide live below the poverty line. Many are deeply indebted from the high-interest loans they are forced to obtain from loan sharks to buy fertilizers and genetically modified seeds that can cost up to four times as much as conventional seeds. One season of unfavorable weather conditions (or a dip in global cotton prices) can spell disaster for the whole family. Global warming is now intensifying the problem.
Genetically modified seeds are expensive and actually not serving the purpose any longer, the bollworm is quickly developing resistance to Bt cotton and now seeks more chemical pesticide usage to make it effective.
Therefore we need sustainable cotton!
Sustainable cotton is hence grown in a way that can maintain levels of production with minimal environmental impact, can support viable producer livelihoods and communities, and can do so in the face of long-term ecological constraints and socioeconomic pressures.
SUSTAINABLE COTTON IMPACT
- Environmental: improve soil health, improve biodiversity, reduce water use, reduce chemical fertiliser use, reduce chemical pesticide use
- Social and Economic: promote decent work for farmers, workers and communities, help farmers become more profitable, increase confidence and trust among consumers
Addressing each of these issues is critical for the long-term viability and sustainability of the industry
And we at Sourcery, are working to bring sustainable cotton sourcing to mainstream sourcing.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Though skills can be developed, it’s your values that will take you far.
Values are something that you stand for — something that you believe in strongly. It is the reason why you do things.
Any career stream will have challenges, set your short-term milestone goals, they are under-rated.
Identifying your values, setting short-term goals and persistence is the key.
It’s fascinating to find out the cost to the environment of producing cotton. Although efforts are being made to grow cotton better, preferred cotton still only makes up a tiny part of the total cotton volume worldwide. And predictions are that the production will only increase.
Brands and other industry partners have joined hands and revisited the old policies and new strategies, and guidelines are being put in place to focus on sustainability.
While there have been improvements in the system, a lot still needs to be done.
I feel encouraged every day, to continue to put in my efforts towards continuous improvement in sustainability in the textile sector. As Sydney J. Harris said, Happiness is a direction, not a place. I am happy I am moving in the right direction, and for right now, this is it!