Australia’s Changing Cotton Industry

by Amy in Category News and tagged ,

Australia’s cotton industry is stepping into the spotlight to meet new demands from international buyers and local businesses that are seeking out Australian produced materials.

For most people, cotton is not the first farm crop that springs to mind when thinking about Australia. But industry reports have shown that cotton farmers in Australia produce some of the best crops in the world, with yields that are 2.6 times the global average.

It’s also a growing industry, with peak body Cotton Australia saying that in 2011/12 cotton farmers planted 560,000 hectares and yielded over 5 million bales – a record crop for the industry that was worth over $3 billion and led to some 8000 jobs in NSW and QLD.

Despite these outstanding figures, the bulk of cotton produced in Australia is actually exported. In fact, Cotton Australia says we are one of the world’s largest exporters, even as a “relatively minor producer on the world scale”.

“Australia produces three percent of the world’s cotton but is the third largest exporter, behind the US and India. More than 99 percent of Australia’s cotton is exported,” it says.

“Cotton growers “sell” their cotton to one of a number of Australian merchants who then sell it into the world’s markets, aiming to get the best price possible.”

But that could all be changing, as more local businesses and industries develop awareness of the quality of cotton growing right here. As demand for cotton continues to grow around the world, the local industry is also on the rise, which has put it in the perfect position for developing more awareness within the Australian community.

Led by Cotton Australia, the local cotton industry is increasing its presence through a range of campaigns. So we thought we’d spread the word further by looking at exactly what’s happening for this small, but growing Australian industry.

Growing demand for cotton

Demand for cotton has increased significantly over the past 10-15 years, largely because of its role in fashion and other textiles. As the National Cotton Council of America (NCC) puts it, cotton touches “every aspect of our lives”.

“For years, cotton clothing, home furnishings and industrial goods have enhanced our quality of life by providing comfort, expression and individuality. From towels to T-shirts, from bedding to blue jeans, cotton surrounds us on a daily basis,” it says.

The NCC notes that cotton is the dominant fibre used in apparel, making up two-thirds of the market, while cotton towels and sheets are also growing in popularity.

As 100% cotton and cotton blend fabrics continue to be used for these industries, the demand for high-quality cotton has also increased. So cotton farms the world over are also experiencing growth to keep up with demand.

Creating cotton awareness in Australia

The high yields and quality of cotton produced in Australia has helped it become one of the world’s main exporters, but a lack of awareness about cotton farms in Australia has left local demand lagging behind. Cotton Australia hopes to change that by providing more information and exposure to local cotton farmers.

A key part of the strategy is to show local businesses exactly how the farms work and the standards of the cotton produced. So Cotton Australia has been arranging tours to show leading industry figures around the farms.

In April 2015, for example, an exclusive group of leading Australian fashion industry figures, retailers and designers were shown through the cotton fields at Narrabri in regional NSW.

The trip – incorporating a tour of two cotton farms during harvest and a cotton gin during processing – showcased the Australian cotton industry’s innovative and responsible approach to production. It included guests such as Apparel Group CEO Adrian Jones, author and former editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, Kirstie Clements, and representatives from Target Australia, among others.

Cotton Australia’s CEO Adam Kay, says the tour was an overwhelming success and helps to close the gap between the field and fashion.

“There’s nothing more powerful than growers sharing their story first-hand as they’re standing in the middle of fully matured cotton fields, with harvest in full swing, and we were able to share the achievements of the industry as a whole,” he says.

“Our efficient, responsible, and modern industry in Australia produces some of the highest quality, highest yielding cotton in the world using fewer natural resources than ever before.”

Over the past 15 years, Kay says the Australian industry has reduced insecticide use by 95%, and reduced the amount of land needed to produce cotton by 30%. Water productivity has also increased by 40% in the past 10 years, leading to a much more efficient and sustainable industry.

The tour, and Cotton Australia’s broader Cotton to Market program has been a huge success so far, with Kay saying they are “starting to better connect the cotton supply chain and end-users with the story of the people growing our magnificent natural fibre.”

How to support local cotton production

According to Cotton Australia, the cotton industry employs 15 times as many people as grazing and five times as many people as dryland cropping. Sourcing Australian cotton for apparel and other textiles also reduces the environmental impact by keeping transportation and other processes to a minimum.

Put simply, supporting the local cotton industry benefits the environment and provides employment opportunities (which also supports the economy). So how can we, as consumers, support Australian cotton production?

A good place to start is with awareness. Learning about the Australian cotton industry, and sharing that information with other people, leads to a greater appreciation for the hard work of our cotton farmers.

Similarly, finding out what companies use Australian cotton means that you can choose to buy Australian cotton products and support all of the businesses involved in the process. Asking different fashion designers or other textile-based executives if cotton is Australian could also help more businesses become aware of the option to use Australian cotton and its benefits.

According to author and guest of the recent Cotton Australia tour, Kirstie Clements, consumer interest in the production of natural fabrics is increasing and could lead to even more demand for things like Australian cotton.

“Thinking about how your clothes are made, where they’re coming from, I think that’s a growing trend in fashion, from high end right down to high street,” she says in an interview with the ABC.

“The consumer is more in control than ever particularly with the wide use of social media as opposed to the designer, the retailer or the advertiser as it used to be.”

So even though we might not be the ones buying freshly spun cotton, developing more awareness of the local industry and sharing that in whatever ways we can is a great way to support Australian cotton.

Australia and organic cotton

As one of the most used materials in textiles, cotton has a history of not always being environmentally sustainable. The amounts of pesticides used on some cotton crops around the world have left land less fertile and have even harmed cotton farmers.

As people have learned more about the environmental impact of traditional cotton harvesting methods, interest in organic cotton has been renewed and built up by both consumers and manufacturers.

So one of the big questions people might have about Australian cotton is whether or not it’s organic. The answer, however, is a little less black and white than people realise.

While there are some organic cotton producers in Australia, they are typically very small, family-owned and run businesses. This means they don’t necessarily have the money to pay for auditing and certification from peak bodies such as Australian Certified Organic.

But just because something is not “certified organic” doesn’t mean it’s not actually organic: a local farmer might sell organic produce, or free range eggs, for example, without having any industry-approved certification. But if you can visit the farm and see it for yourself, then you’ll be able to see exactly how organic or free range things are.

The same goes for cotton in Australia – while there aren’t many options when it comes to certified organic cotton, there are still some small cotton farms that are producing it using organic standards.

But even if cotton isn’t organic, the information provided by Cotton Australia shows that local farming methods are becoming more sustainable. The Federal government’s Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CDRC) says Australia’s cotton farms and some of the most innovative in the world when it comes to infrastructure that supports sustainability. So even if Australian cotton isn’t listed as organic, it could still be better for the environment than imported cotton.

Cotton: a new “big industry” in Australia?

With Cotton Australia amping up its campaigns and awareness of the local cotton production, as well as more interest from manufacturers and consumers, it’s worth considering the future of this local industry. Could cotton become one of the new big industries, filling the gap left by the end of the mining boom?

This possibility hasn’t yet been fully explored, but there is potential. The CDRC has even developed an industry program to recruit staff for cotton farms, targeting universities with information, internships, work experience opportunities and scholarships.

A recent report on ABC’s Landline has also revealed that many farmers are transitioning to cotton crops as a way of reducing water consumption and still getting high-yield returns on their fields.

“Since water became our limiting resource instead of land, we had to look for a commodity that maximised water use efficiency,” farmer George Commins says.

“So we’re traditionally rice, corn, seed sunflowers, sorghum, and other seed crops, as pumpkins, onions. But as broadacre farmers, we’ve turned to cotton and haven’t looked back just because of the high-yield returns.”

Reporter Sean Murphy says many other farmers are following suit, “as growers take advantage of new varieties and a boom in investment”. From these reports, it’s clear Australian cotton production is on the rise.

But regardless of whether or not there is a cotton farming boom on the horizon, the increased interest in Australian cotton will hopefully give us more opportunities to buy things made from cotton grown on the land around us.