Cultivating a new cotton culture

There is a poetry to the way Pramod Singh speaks. When asked what he’s working on right now he says: “Oh my god, it’s an endless journey but I believe that’s the beauty of this work.” Pramod is a Cotton Leader at IKEA, but also, along with partners such as the WWF, he’s coaxing the cotton industry into a more sustainable future.

It’s a mammoth and complicated journey that Pramod Singh has been on at IKEA. He doesn’t seem too phased, though. He takes his successes, moves on, and doesn’t blink when faced with the next challenge.

Pramod’s personal journey with IKEA has gone from the hustle and bustle of the factory floor in India to the serious focus of the office landscape in Sweden. From working directly with farmers and suppliers to partnering with the biggest brands and stakeholders in the industry.

His mission? To change the way business is done in the cotton industry to make it more sustainable.

“When you’re so far away you miss the beauty of reality you are always encounter. But when you are here, in Älmhult, you can influence in a much bigger way,” says Pramod. The appeal for him, in his current job, is that with the right means, he can reach the right people and can make real change.

Pramod remembers sitting in a meeting room in 2007 with a group of IKEA co-workers, all of whom work with cotton in some way. They’d flown in from around the world to hear his team’s presentation of a pilot project in Pakistan. They had managed farm and manufacture in that region of Pakistan using sustainable practices.

When you’re so far away you miss the beauty of reality you are always encountering. But when you are here, in Älmhult, you can influence in a much bigger way.

The guests were sceptical to the idea that all cotton used at IKEA could be produced in a more sustainable way. They thought that the cotton supply chain was too complicated to make fully traceable. Pramod recalls the dialogue: “They asked, can we do this? And we said, yes!”

Once it was first proved to work at the farm level, and later in the supply chain, the IKEA team could fix the goal and start spreading their sustainable practices across the world. “The good part is that IKEA leaders got convinced, even in 2007. That support has been unwavering.”

Very early, a British colleague said to Pramod while evaluating various online traceability solutions: “You know in this journey because it is so new and it is so remarkable, you will find many people who will put marbles under your feet,” But the team did not trip, they succeeded. In 2015, IKEA could announce that they had reached their goal of 100% traceable and sustainable cotton production.

Maintaining sustainable practices

It’s Pramod’s job to secure and maintain fully sustainable cotton at IKEA. “When you have a goal of 100% everyone is focused that we must reach that 100%. In retrospect, reaching that goal was easy, it’s maintaining that level which is a super challenge. When you’re at 70%, 68% is not such a big deal, but now, going down is not an option,” says Pramod.

It’s a fine balance of working out what to do and how to do it. “When these two mix, they create a movement,” says Pramod. He likens his project to a big elephant you have to chop up, and each person takes a part and starts developing and thinking about how and where to go from where they are.

At IKEA, Pramod works with six people based in six different cotton producing regions around the world. Cotton doesn’t grow in the most famous or fancy places; it grows in semi-arid regions where the weather is extremely harsh. Pramod believes that strategic and practical input has to meet. “If it’s only bottom up, you create a plan that is only details, and if it’s only top down, then it’s only PowerPoint. Feasibility is the most important part, but it makes for a longer meeting.”

Pramod Singh, Cotton Leader at IKEA.
Pramod Singh, Cotton Leader at IKEA.

Local brands important

Pramod represents his employer IKEA at the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). The BCI is a not-for-profit organisation “stewarding the global standards for Better Cotton, and bringing together cotton’s complex supply chain, from the farmers to the retailers.” Many recognisable brands work with IKEA to improve and secure cotton farming practices for the future.

There are 3,500 products at IKEA that use cotton. The cotton is sourced by IKEA suppliers and sub-suppliers from all the major cotton producing countries. IKEA accounts for less than 1% of global cotton production. In total, 12% of global cotton production comes from BCI verified sources.

Together, let’s make the pie bigger, let’s not fight over the sustainable suppliers and farmers that already exist.

70% of the cotton is used in the country where it is produced, only 30% gets traded worldwide. “If we’re going to make this big – then BCI can’t just work with international brands like IKEA, it’s crucial to also include local brands,” says Pramod.

“When a new brand joins the sustainable cotton,” says Pramod, “we say, we have done the groundwork and there is a pie that is of certain size, you can join, and together let’s make the pie bigger, let’s not fight over the sustainable suppliers and farmers that already exist.”

IKEA couldn’t have been achieved their goals without working with implementation partners, like the WWF, who is also a member of the BCI. IKEA needs organisations like WWF who have the right contacts on the ground. “Because you’re coming from the city and saying what the farmers have been doing all their lives is not right. They would be like… ok, good – have you ever done this?”

Threats to sustainable practices

Pramod sees the main threats to sustaining an IKEA verified supply chain as climate change. The scientific community has told them a few things, and they have also witnessed unpredictable weather patterns for themselves. Normal weather patterns are not happening.

It’s a fine balance of working out what to do and how to do it. “When these two mix, they create a movement.”

At the moment together with the WWF, they are looking into ways of dealing with these changes, developing mitigation strategies. Some ideas are, recommending certain varieties of crops that are more drought resistant. And another is creating micro-weather stations, where they can forecast weather locally so that farmers can be more prepared. They can also use the people on the ground, who work for the WWF, to help farmers to optimise water usage when the rain comes, make water efficiency even higher.

“As I have learnt after coming to Sweden it’s not the weather that is important; it’s how you are prepared for it,” he says. You can say the same for the future of the cotton industry.

From the hustle and bustle of the textile industry in India to the calm of the office landscape in Sweden.
From the hustle and bustle of the textile industry in India to the calm of the office landscape in Sweden.

Fast facts about Pramod Singh:
Education/where and when: Ph.D, India, 2003
Born/grew-up in: India
Worked at IKEA since: 2005
One thing you can’t live without? Family & Coffee
What was the last picture you took with your phone? A birthday celebration party of colleague and friend.
What makes you happy? New Ideas
What makes you sad? Complicated process
What defines you as a person? River

Facts about cotton farming
Most cotton is grown and picked by hand on small farms in developing countries, and conventional farming techniques waste a tremendous amount of water, as well as chemical pesticides and fertilisers. The result of all this is often significant health risks to the farmer, soil erosion and water scarcity. And in some cases, child labour.

The Pilot project in Pakistan started with just 500 farmers, some of whom were initially resistant to change farming techniques. But after one year, the results were unprecedented in cotton production, and the expansion to a larger group of farmers was rapid. Hands-on training and field schools offered farmers in India and Pakistan the opportunity to learn new cultivation practices that would help them successfully grow cotton with fewer chemicals and less water. Inspired by the results, more and more farmers joined the projects. And in 2010, project farmers in Pakistan were the first in the world to produce licensed Better Cotton.

For more than 110,000 farmers and their families in India and Pakistan, life is so much better. Compared to those using conventional farming methods, project farmers in India boosted their earnings by about 45% in 2013. They also used 38% less pesticides, 29% less synthetic fertilisers and 24% less water than conventional farming.