Africa Fashion Guide
A social enterprise promoting sustainability within Africa's fashion and textile industry.


March 19th, 2012

Interview with Simon Ferrigno – Africa Fashion Guide African Cotton CAMPAIGN

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Written by: Jacqueline Shaw
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Back in September we launched Africa Fashion Guide at an event held at the Africa Centre in London’s West End. Part of the launch we held two discussions one on Ethical Fashion and the other on African Fashion. We were blessed to have Cotton Specialist Simon Ferrigno on the panel sharing his knowledge on cotton in regards to Ethical and African fashion.

With the launch of our now Africa Fashion Guide African Cotton Campaign we continue to bring you the best of the best specialists in the field. So we asked Consultant for Sustainable & Organic Farm Systems, Simon Ferrigno to be featured in an interview on AFG for our readers to understand why we believe African Cotton is so important.

As well as this interview below we are happy to announce the launch of Simon’s book:

Insider’s Guide to Sustainable Cotton

Published by MCL Global, who also produce the reputable publication Ecotextile News ,this fantastic handbook is a wealth of knowledge. Over 136 pages it covers the ecological impact of cotton production and the environmental challenges that this presents going forward.

EcoTextile News tell us that ‘The guidebook primarily focuses on the details of the systems and standards of sustainable cotton and the importance of research and development into the growth of the organic cotton sector. The book also includes:

  • The social and environmentally problematic over-use of pesticides
  • Cotton production data 2010-11
  • Biotechnology and genetically-engineered cotton
  • The importance of research and development
  • Mapping the way forward – recommendations
  • The evolution of IPM and agro-ecology.’

insiders Guide to Sustainable Cotton – by SImon Ferrigno

Interview with Simon Ferrigno
AFG: Please tell us more about your background specifically in cotton agriculture and farming and what your job entails.

Simon: I’ve been working on cotton and sustainability since 2000. I have worked in a sustainability think tank, The International Institute for Environment and Development, and studied also with the Open University in 1998, studying Environment and International Development. In 2000 I applied and was offered a job working on cotton with Pesticide Action Network. I had written my dissertation on cotton and with PAN worked on both the problems with cotton and promotion of the alternatives, such as organic cotton. PAN UK was very involved in working with partners in Africa, and I travelled regularly to Senegal and Benin in particular, while working on campaigns and engagement with businesses and designers in the UK and across Europe.

My job these days is as an independent researcher and writer on cotton and sustainability. I work advising agencies, NGOs, companies and designers on sourcing sustainable cotton or investigating issues, as well as doing writing for magazines, notably Ecotextile News. I also sit on various committees, such as the RITE (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment) Group steering committee, the Better Cotton Initiative advisory group as well as the Soil Association Textile and Trade group.

A big part of my job is also networking and sharing information, notably with producers around the world, including in Africa. Being an independent allows me to think and act more freely. I am also part of two other initiatives, Cotton Conversations (‘a learning and choice-support process to improve collaboration and business efficiency’) and the Buying Pool, an in-development initiative to help connect small and medium sized brands to farmers and manufacturers in developing countries through group buying.

AFG: Why is cotton such an importance to the textiles industry please highlight the pros, cons and qualities of cotton that we love so much?

Simon: Cotton is a raw material that has been central – on a global level – since the 16th and 17th centuries when it became a widely used material in Europe and helped fuel the industrial revolution, and sadly, later, slavery and the US civil war. Before that, the domestication of cotton at least 7,000 years ago in the Indus valley and separately in south America (5 to 6,000 years ago) and southern Africa (4,500 years ago) mean it is part of our human cultural fabric.

Cotton signifies the shift from subsistence lives to organised lives where there was a surplus in society to allow for luxury, and innovation, when needs beyond survival were satisfied. However, cotton has gone from being the major fibre in textiles 50 years ago to only some 36% now, because of the arrival of synthetic fibres.

Nevertheless, it is viewed as natural and a sign of luxury. Cotton is soft and breathable and can be used for many products: clothing, home textiles, bedding, Long staple cotton in particular is a highly prized product. It is also versatile. Through history, cotton has been used to make not only clothing and art, but also armour padding, fishing nets and even threads for use on abacus style calculating tools.

In recent years, cotton has also been under fire for various issues such as over use of pesticides and insecticides, water use and pollution, labour abuses and so on; more recently, people are saying cotton takes land away from food production. A lot has already been done to address some issues such as chemical use following a lot of campaigning and initiatives including organic, Fairtrade and Cotton made in Africa, while other issues such as labour are on the agenda. Some other issues are misunderstood. Cotton is usually grown with food in poorer countries, and could be seen as helping increase food supply, while it provides cash income for health and education which otherwise would not be there. On water, pollution has sometimes been an issue but contrary to many reports, cotton is not water intensive compared to many other crops, and indeed, a lot of cotton is grown purely with rain water, especially in Africa.

AFG:  Over the last few years there has been talk in industry of the rise of cotton prices and a lot of design companies have been looking towards using polyester base materials or cotton/poly mixes. What is the present situation of the cotton price?

Simon: Cotton prices have come down a lot over the last year after the highs of 2010 and 2011, although they are much higher than in the decade to 2010. There is some good news in high prices for poorer farmers! Because of demand, rising middle class populations around the world and the fact that there is a finite amount of land in the world, cotton prices are likely to stay higher than in recent decades, but other raw materials are also going to rise. We may all need to get used to inflation in clothing again, which we had forgotten about. Clothing costs as a portion of income are still lower than in the 1970s.

AFG: Why is organic cotton even an issue in relation to conventional grown cotton?

Simon: Organic cotton was the first initiative to try to address problems in conventional cotton in a public way. When organic cotton started in the early 1990s, conventional cotton was still using a lot of pesticides and some particularly strong and toxic ones. It was a much starker contrast between good and bad compared to today where not only has conventional cotton cleaned up but organic is now challenged by other initiatives such as Fairtrade, Better Cotton and Cotton made in Africa.

insiders Guide to Sustainable Cotton – by SImon Ferrigno – inside view

Nevertheless, organic cotton, when done well, as it is in many African countries, is a perfect solution for resource poor small farmers, bring cash, reduced debt and improved soils, improving health and opening new economic opportunities for farmers and their communities.

Organic cotton uses no ‘manufactured’ pesticides although it may use naturally occurring ones, such as neem extracts or Bt sprays. Soil fertility is managed using compost, animal manure and crop rotation, and biological processes are used along with cultural control – attracting natural enemies of cotton pests, or planting crops that attract pests away from cotton. There is in most projects an emphasis on putting farmers at the centre of decision making, while the paying of premiums and generally reduced costs of production enhance farmers’ returns while reducing their risk in case of problems, such as drought. This is why organic is still the best system to help the poorest and smallest farmers.

AFG:What alternatives could we use if we don’t buy organic?

Simon: There are many initiatives now claiming to address the sustainability challenges of cotton – some might say too many. Better Cotton, Fairtrade, Cotton Made in Africa and the Sustainable Cotton project together with retailer initiatives like ‘Cleaner Cotton’ are based on principles of Integrated Pest Management. Often the goal is to be what is called a ‘mass market commodity’, essentially meaning to bring benefits to a wider segment of the cotton sector against what is perceived to be the organic niche. This is debatable, no one knows how feasible it is to grow much more organic cotton while trying to hard to be mass market might:


insiders Guide to Sustainable Cotton – by SImon Ferrigno – inside view

If you wish to get in contact with Simon Ferrigno you can contact him via his website:

To learn more we recommend you purchase a copy of ‘An Insider’s Guide to Cotton and Sustainability’. The book is written by Simon Ferrigno and edited by John Mowbray and is priced at just £25.00 + pp. It was kindly supported by Cotton Inc., the Global Organic Textile StandardRoot Capital and the Aid by Trade Foundation and can be purchased via Ecotextile News.
Author: Jacqueline Shaw



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