As social and environmental issues become increasingly important to consumers, retailers see a need to respond by providing products made of sustainable materials and manufactured through the employment of ethical practices.
Liverpool-based, Plexus Cotton is a leading global supplier of cotton (sixth largest in the world) focusing the growth of its business around strong long-standing relationships with suppliers and customers, and a focus on sustainability. The group employs about 40 staff in Liverpool, but globally Plexus employs some 2,000 people directly, rising to around 6,000 full and part-time workers during the picking season in Africa. Plexus’ turnover grew to £330 million in 2011 from £258 million in 2010, with a growth of nearly 30%.
There is no reason why all cotton should not be sourced sustainably. It is down to the question of availability. There is no reason why everyone shouldn’t aspire to this”
Plexus works with initiatives like BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) and CMIA (Cotton Made in Africa) to provide traceability of their supply chain to retail partners. The company is committed to offering traceability starting with raw materials and improving labour conditions in the mills while maximising crop yields to sustain profits and cash flows.
According to Plexus, “This is achieved through the ongoing education and income-improvement of small holder farmers. Working with partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, DEG and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) [consultancy firms], and benefitting from strategic relationships with commodity supply-chain managers in parallel industries, we continue to develop our operations to attract brands looking for established, independently audited, transparent and sustainable raw cotton producers.”
SOURCE Contributor Magaly Fuentes-Sagan was able to catch up with Peter Salcedo, Sustainables Trader at Plexus Cotton Limited, to find out more about defining sustainability, industry collaboration, building retailer and producer relationships and emerging technology that will help to improve sustainable practices.
Salcedo says he started to get involved in sustainability about 5 or 6 years ago and the overall feeling was “Good Lord, where do we start and how do we fix this?” Salcedo feels that a baby steps-approach is truly the key to getting things done and believes that is why BCI is getting where they are… “by working in small bits.”
What business moves have been most instrumental in maximising yields and improving producers’ incomes and why?
“The training and extension activities that have been implemented by our field staff at origin to help the farmers in our operating regions to improve yields, environmental and social conditions. Such programs are constantly being refined and improved, especially through our work within COMPACI – The Competitive African Cotton Initiative, supported by GIZ, DEG & the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
We also work closely with BCI and CMIA; take a look at the BCI or CMIA websites for requirements of participants to qualify. At the broadest levels, our work focuses on the social environment and the economic environment which includes everything from farm training, planting of cotton, weeding, spacing of plants, a raft of measures. On the social side, we offer gender training to encourage women to get more involved in the farming side.”
You work within a number of countries – which countries are really leading the way in sustainability and why?
“In terms of our operations, Mozambique and Malawi, which are CMIA & BCI compliant producers. This is only within our perspective. It depends on the angle you want to take on this… if you are referring to globally then it comes down to who is the biggest producer. It is probably Brazil and its production is with BCI right now.
This business is not yet clearly and absolutely defined with one definition of sustainability so it also depends on what definition you are thinking about.”
What have been the biggest barriers to sourcing sustainably?
“Sourcing is not the problem, as we are involved in the production. Growing the demand for the sustainably produced cotton produced by the farmers has been the challenge to date.
We spend a lot of time talking to retailers to find out what they want and seeing what we can do to meet their requirements. Retailers are very diverse and have very different needs and visions as far as what they want. We have to be flexible. Work with some retailers demands that we get into the ‘nitty gritty’ of farming to help them with yield production if that’s what they want or they may want to just know who certified their cotton. We have to work with them to offer the service based on their specific needs and vision.”
What is Plexus’ experience of supplying to retailers, what do you look for and how do you engage them in sustainability?
“Retailer relationships are a key area of development for us. We believe that strong direct relationships between the retailer and the producer are the key to developing transparency and sustainability within the cotton supply chain, and so we have been fostering such relationships for some time. Our aim is to provide them with:
- - Sustainable, traceable raw cotton that is independently verified by CMIA, BCI or CU organic standards;
- - Direct access to the small-holder farmer communities where that cotton is produced, and to the development programmes that we have in place there;
- - Established monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, which are again third-party verified, so that the impact of our sustainability activities can be assessed.
We are working to enhance our traceability and monitoring capabilities at origin, to further improve the M&E capabilities according to the differing requirements of retailers and brands.
It is an ongoing process with BCI and CMIA. To qualify under the system you have to show ongoing improvement year after year. All elements of that are constantly being looked at. Practices of farmers are constantly being assessed… also, water usage and carbon footprint – all constantly being looked at.
The key to all of this is technology. What we are looking at now is GPS-enabled info collection as well as having a smart phone on the field with updated live information to see what we have bought in a day, what the farmer has produced, etc. Monitoring and evaluating capabilities that we have are constantly being evaluated. GPS tracking and mobile phone technology are currently two separate technologies that we are hoping to see come together.”
Is there any reason why all cotton should not be sourced sustainably? And is this a goal of Plexus?
“There is no reason why all cotton should not be sourced sustainably. It is down to the question of availability. There is no reason why everyone shouldn’t aspire to this. There are still one or two parts of the world at least where sustainability is either ignored or treated with suspicion but a lot of work is being done to correct that position.”