John Lewis investing in sustainable cotton

John Lewis Partnership have visited some of the local smallholder farmers in India that are involved in a joint three-year farmer training programme.

Earlier this year, Stephen Cawley, Head of Sustainability, and partners from the Indian sourcing-office team at John Lewis Partnership were joined by Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect, on a visit to some of the local smallholder farmers in India that are involved in a joint three-year farmer training programme.

Cotton is the main raw material for John Lewis’ textile and apparel teams, and securing a sustainable and transparent supply in the future is vital. The programme sees the UK retailer work with local farmers responsible for producing cotton used in the manufacturing of its towels, bath mats and curtains, sold in stores throughout the UK.

The aim of the programme is to create a source of sustainable cotton. By educating and training India’s conventional cotton farmers to move to more sustainable farming methods, CottonConnect helps to create change at the farm level, working with manufacturers, spinners, and farm groups to secure a sustainable supply for brands and retailers.

Through the work of CottonConnect, John Lewis and other partner companies are also able to positively affect the livelihood and wellbeing of the farming community – helping to improve their income through sharing best practice on agricultural techniques, thereby creating greater crop yields. Best practice is shared through training programmes for farmers to reduce pesticide use, introduce drip irrigation and improve fertilisation techniques (with evidence of delivering 50% yield increases within 12 months, in some cases).


Farmers are invited to enrol in the John Lewis-funded training programme, which consists of three training modules a year over a three year period, providing data for collection and assessment to measure the social and environmental impact over the project’s lifetime.

The farmers learn how to address the environmental impact of high usage of fertilizer and chemicals – and the associated negative future effects on the soil. The training also supports farming communities in addressing social issues, such as the negative impacts of child labour. By improving the yields and the livelihoods of the farmers, they are better equipped and resourced to find the appropriate support at harvest time.


CottonConnect will be training a total of 1,500 farmers during the three-year period of the project, positively affecting the lives, livelihoods and employment of around 7,500 people.

For John Lewis Partnership, ensuring security of supply, traceability to source of the cotton fibre, and interaction with farmers at the end of the supply chain is important. So too is having a positive impact on the social and environmental conditions of the farmers.


Having just returned from India to visit some of the farming communities working with John Lewis and CottonConnect, the team was encouraged by the progress made at farm level and the impact of the investment the retailer had made.

Traditionally, buying teams would operate through brokers in the cotton industry. In this case, the cotton buying team is brought face-to-face with farmers.

“It was amazing to see the interaction between the retailer team and the local farmers. The moment when the villagers met their customers responsible for turning the raw material into actual products was incredible. When a commercial entity turns up in a village, the whole dynamic can change. We act as an independent third party, helping to build a new trade model; keeping it separate from the commercial conversation, helping to provide the right conditions to facilitate better understanding, greater transparency, and working towards better livelihoods for the farmers.”

– Alison Ward, CEO, CottonConnect


So, what’s driving this traceability and relationship-building between brand and farmer? There’s no doubt that ethically-conscious and increasingly demanding consumers expect more from the companies they buy from, right across the high street.

“John Lewis is an established and trusted brand, so it was natural for us to want to ensure transparency and integrity right across our supply chain and support the development of close relationships with our suppliers. The engagement brings benefits to the brand – we are helping to ensure security of supply, traceability to the fibre source, as well as having a positive impact on the social and environmental conditions of the farmers in India – which is crucial when such a large part of our manufacturing supply chain is based in that part of the world.”

– Stephen Cawley, Head of Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing, John Lewis.

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