How it all began for No Nasties: Cotton farmers and organic cotton

How it all began for No Nasties: Cotton farmers and organic cotton

“The Indian Peasant has an amazing capacity to bear misfortune, and he has always had more than his share of it - famine, flood, disease and continuous grinding poverty - and when he could endure it no longer, he would quietly and almost uncomplainingly lie down in his thousands or millions and die. That was his way of escape.“ - Jawaharlal Nehru, from An Autobiography (1936)

It was 2009. Our founder Apurva Kothari was working as a consultant in the Silicon Valley, but in the course of reading about matters back home in India, he came upon a NASTY problem. Apurva discovered that the number of farmer suicides in the country was alarming - over 300,000 in 20 years! For some eye-opening context, this comes to a life being lost about EVERY 30 minutes. Cotton farmers were buried under debt (so many still ARE) due to expensive GMO seeds and pesticides used towards producing one of the world's most water-intensive crops - conventional cotton. This just wasn’t okay and Apurva decided to do something about it. That's where it all began for us. 

It’s what made us care so deeply. And it’s why we’ve always been an organic, Fairtrade brand.

Breaking down the farmer problem

No Nasties officially took flight in 2011, but we’d hit the drawing board a while before that. We looked at farmer issues and the agrarian crisis through different perspectives to understand them better. 

Most cotton farmers in India have small landholdings. They aren’t well-connected to the market. They are unable to get fair prices for their produce. Add high-yield pressures, costs of pricey chemicals and loan sharks, and things start to look really grim for them. Cotton is also called the dirtiest crop - while it takes up about 5% of farmland in India, cotton consumes almost 40% of all pesticides used. That is NOT a good sign. It’s terrible for farmer health and these chemicals make their way right back into our water and food systems. 

Could we, then, help the farmers AND the environment by switching to organic? Oh heck yes! We’ve been doing it from the day we started. We wrote here about why conventional cotton is such a big problem and what organic cotton does to overcome it.

How we found our lovely organic cotton

It was decided then - organic cotton was our answer.  So we went searching for it.

Now, India is the world’s LARGEST producer of conventional AND organic cotton. So sourcing organic cotton wasn’t going to be a task, per se, but it had to be done in a manner that drove some meaningful change for the farmers from whom we were buying it. Starting an organic clothing brand was to effect REAL change for cotton farmers. Otherwise, what’s the point? Enter Chetna Organic.

Chetna Organic - By the farmers, for the farmers

Chetna Organic is a farmer-owned cooperative that was founded in 2004 in Hyderabad by two civil society organisations - Solidaridad and ETC India. Farmers affiliated with Chetna Organic primarily work in the rain fed areas of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha. Beginnings were humble with 234 members having small landholdings in India’s cotton-growing belt. Chetna’s mission is to improve the livelihoods of distressed and marginalised farmers by bringing them together and providing know-how of organic farming practices while giving access to markets and buyers.

happy cotton farmer chetna organic indiaFrom non-GMO seed access to promoting sustainable best practices, and right up to building supply chain partnerships with other groups and agencies - the cooperative does it all. Chetna Organic is indeed unique in its structure of being farmer-owned and operated. This eliminates middlemen and malpractice, putting farmer welfare front and centre. This is EXACTLY the kind of farmer movement we wanted to support and empower. 

No Nasties & Chetna Organic coming together

When we first came in contact with them, there was some frustration felt by them about organic cotton not being marketable in India due to lack of demand. Most of it was being exported and there was hardly any local support. A large part of the produce had to be sold at conventional cotton prices.

Today, virtually all our organic cotton comes from Chetna Organic. And on average, we pay 30% more for it, which takes into account the Fairtrade Premium as well as the higher value of organic cotton itself, compared to conventional cotton. Read more about Fairtrade and Fairtrade Premiums here.

Chetna Organic use the Fairtrade Premium for a number of community programs, like construction of warehouses for safe storage of cotton (as opposed to inside farmers’ homes where it presents a fire and hygiene risk), construction of bio-fertiliser units and a revolving fund that makes part payments as a safety-net to farmers, preventing them from distress sales when the market is unfavourable.

The impact of choosing Organic Cotton from Chetna Organic

Over the years Chetna has become a comprehensive, all-encompassing socio-economic support system for its cotton farmers with many other achievements to its credit. From increasing incomes and facilitating financing to running programs that help farmers switch to organic farming. Today, it counts OVER 40,000 farmers as members.

It’s such a refreshing alternative to how agriculture typically tends to be structured (or fragmented, rather!) in India. Here are a few more of their heartening successes:

  • Chetna Organic is now able to sell over 90% of cotton grown as organic (which commands a higher price)
  • They have helped farmers introduce crop rotation and grow food crops such as soya, in addition to cotton, keeping food security and biodiversity in mind
  • Their key global customers have grouped themselves together into the Chetna Coalition (ChetCo) which works towards ensuring future buying commitments to Chetna farmers, among other social welfare projects

The 100% organic and Fairtrade factory to which most of Chetna Organic’s cotton goes (Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills in Kolkata) actually makes all of our organic clothing too. They also help pre-finance the cotton produce of Chetna’s farmers. In fact, Chetna Organic, through its cooperatives, owns a 10% stake in Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills, which means even more goes back to the farmers in this supply chain. 

To actually see such positive change in the farmer problem we first saw is just a BEAUTIFUL feeling. It fills our hearts with joy to be a part of it in some way. It’s what we truly care about. THIS is what you support by voting for organic. By choosing better clothing. Because ultimately, without happy farmers, there is NO No Nasties.