The story behind Whitbread’s approach to ultimate traceability in cotton

As the UK’s largest operator of hotels and restaurants, including Premier Inn, Whitbread has continued to change and evolve over the years.

But one thing that hasn’t changed since we were founded back in 1742 is our focus on being a force for good in the communities we operate.

At the heart of our sustainability programme is people. We have a strong culture of developing our people and our team members are the life and soul of our business.

The last few years have seen us extend this focus on personal wellbeing to those that work along our supply chain, producing the things that we buy as a business.

We’ve always been keen on improving the transparency of our supply chain. We were the first hotel company to join Sedex, for example. This has enabled us to reduce the risk associated with our suppliers, but also to get more visibility.

In 2017, we started a three-year programme with CottonConnect to improve our visibility and understanding of where our cotton comes from and the people that produce it. Cotton is one of our critical commodities, along with fish, meat, timber and palm oil.

We own a portion of the cotton we use, and we also rent a portion. For the cotton we own, we decided to find out exactly who we were buying from so that we could help those farmers directly, rather than supporting a mass balance system that would support sustainable cotton production in general.

Thanks to working with CottonConnect, we know that all of the cotton we use in our hotels and restaurants is produced in Pakistan by 1,600 farmers.

A lack of education in many cotton-farming regions means that farmers are often over-reliant on third parties giving them advice and tips on agriculture. Unfortunately, many of these third parties also encourage farmers to buy more and more pesticides, exposing farmers to chemicals, damaging the environment and reducing cotton yields.

Through the programme, we wanted to teach the 1,600 farmers to farm more sustainably, cut their costs and generate more money.

And it has worked.

Many of them have earned profits for the first time in years, with the extra income enabling farmers to send their children to school or reinvest in their farms.

On average, across the 1,600 farms, yields have risen 10.1% and profits have jumped 26.6%. Farmers are using less water and chemicals, and they are reaping the benefits.

We have also supported a programme highlighting the importance of education, particularly for girls who often miss out on going to school. Our training programme has resulted in 32 more kids from farmer families being enrolled in school, with enrolment overall in education increasing by more than 5% across the whole project area in Pakistan.

CottonConnect also introduces companies to partner organisations that can provide grants. One of the ladies that took part in the cotton farmer training has used the skills she learned to open a shop selling vegetables to the village. The money she is making will go towards paying for her daughter’s wedding.

Improving traceability in our cotton supply chain is not just about supporting people and their livelihoods. It is also a business decision. If cotton farming is being diminished in certain parts of the world, sourcing cotton in the future will only get harder. Improving resilience in the supply chain is in everybody’s interest.

We recognise that people are increasingly concerned about where things come from and the impact that is having on people and the planet. We also have a responsibility to protect the environment, especially in parts of the world where resources are being stretched thin.

The work we are doing with CottonConnect to boost traceability and transparency allows us to directly make a difference to the lives of the people we know are producing things we need as a business. And that is a great feeling.

By James Pitcher, Director of Sustainability, Whitbread

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