Portrait of a woman in traditional Indian clothes in an outdoor setting.

Umul and her journey for better cotton

When Umul first visited other female cotton farmers to teach about more sustainable and healthy techniques, they would not take her seriously. Today women come to her village and ask her for advice. Learn more about what she has achieved and IKEAs 17 year long partnership with WWF.

Umul Baneen grew up in a rural town in northern Pakistan, and her family had a small piece of land. Most of the cotton picking was done by the women, and she learned a lot from her mother. When Umul grew up it was a matter of course that she would follow her mother’s footsteps, and when she finished school she started to work in the field. But something bothered her—she knew there must be a better and healthier way to grow cotton.

 “My brother came home one day and told us that someone would come to our village and teach about sustainable cotton and workers benefits. I realized that this would not just benefit cotton farmers, but also women in particular,” says Umul.

Portrait of Umal Baneen in an outdoor setting.

As an early participant in the IKEA and WWF sustainable cotton initiative in 2005, she learned about sowing, planting and picking cotton in a way that protects farming families’ health. After her training Umul wanted to help others and travelled to other villages as a field facilitator. She went house-to-house to ask the women where they’d feel most comfortable to get together. In the beginning they would not take her seriously and joked about what she had to say.

“To engage more women in the trainings I used role play, and I also made sure to add some jokes during my practical demonstrations. When other women heard about that, more and more wanted to participate,” says Umul.

A cotton plant in a cotton field at sunset.

Approximately 25 million metric tonnes of cotton are produced annually around the world. The popular textile fibre is also important for IKEA – every year we use around 0.7 percent of all cotton produced.

When WWF and IKEA started the cotton collaboration in 2005, there was a clear business case for change. Pollution from agricultural chemicals and heavy water use were a common concern. Working with the very beginning of the cotton supply chain was the obvious place to start.

IKEA and WWF set about working closely with small groups of farmers in India and Pakistan, where the 200 families in Maqboolabad in northern Pakistan where Umul lives is one example. The farmers were offered hands-on field training in cultivation techniques that reduced fertiliser, pesticide and water use.

“At the beginning, persuading farmers to try out different approaches was challenging. With average smallholdings of 1.5 hectares, they are vulnerable and apprehensive about anything new. But through a demonstration farm we could show ways to reduce costs and increase margins and productivity,” says Srinivasan Krishnamurthy, IKEA in India.

A person carrying a bundle of cotton on the head, in a cotton field.

WWF and IKEA have together developed and promoted better practice through a number of joint cotton projects in India and Pakistan. You can read about the journey together into cotton sustainability in the project report “From better cotton fields to market transformation”.

IKEA and WWF also helped create the Better Cotton Initiative, an independent not-for-profit organisation that brings together farmers, producers and retailers in an effort to make global cotton production better for people, the environment and the sector’s future. Today more than 45,000 farmers in India and Pakistan have been trained in Better Cotton techniques through the WWF and IKEA projects.

WWF and IKEA have worked together since 2002. Today the partnership runs projects in 17 countries supporting cotton, forestry and water stewardship programmes.

“IKEA shows how a multinational company can influence the market and contribute to finding workable solutions to often very complex issues. Our partnership rests on mutual commitment to promoting responsible forest management and securing forest values for both present and future needs,” says Håkan Wirtén, CEO, WWF Sweden.

Today IKEA uses about one percent of the world’s industrial roundwood production. Mostly from Sweden, Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Germany.

“Ultimately, we want IKEA to leave a positive footprint beyond the forest areas in which we operate. Working in partnership with WWF and others over the last 15 years, we have helped certify around 35 million hectares of forest to FSC standards. We are determined to continue this work, bringing even more FSC wood on to the market,” says Lena Pripp-Kovac, Sustainability Manager, IKEA of Sweden.

Read more about the programmes in “A Forest Partnership for Change”.

A pair of hands picking a ball of cotton in a cotton field.

Umul in Pakistan does not travel to other villages as much as before. She does not have to. Among all the women she has trained as a field facilitator, several have now started to train other women in their villages. Often they come to Umul for advice.

What was the biggest challenge for you when you started?

“Other people were concerned when I decided to leave home and travel alone. When they realized that it was for a good cause they accepted it. Now I am very proud, it gives me respect,” says Umul.

Umul can see how much the partnership with IKEA and WWF means, especially for many women.

“I hope the partnership will continue so that we can learn even more about new technology, and I encourage even more programmes with focus on women,” says Umul.