• Bristol Fair Trade

Cotton Smiles and the impact of COVID-19

Overall winners of the Southwest Fair Trade Business Awards 2018, Cotton Smiles products are made from 100% Fair Trade certified organic cotton, selling durable re-usable shopping bags, tea towels, aprons and fabric by the metre. Here, business owner Vineeta tells us how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only their own business, but the lives of the cotton workers they partner with in India, and how Fairtrade has supported workers through the crisis.

Photography by Caro Hutchings
Vineeta and Jim with their Business Award

We are passionate about Fair Trade and sustainability in business, so we started Cotton Smiles to help support poor cotton farmers and their families in India. Our stock products are tote bags, tea towels and aprons sold plain, printed or embroidered and we make all our products using Fairtrade certified organic cotton.

In our first 2 years of entering the South West Fair Trade Business Awards, we won Best Overall Business and Best Retailer of Multiple Products.

Our relationship with our Indian partners is key to us - we are so proud of the ethical and ecological standards of the farmers’ cooperative producing our cotton. These standards bring tangible benefits to families and communities, and the Fairtrade premium allows villagers to invest in community improvement projects.

Under Fairtrade, cotton previously stored in family homes is now kept in shared cotton stores, reducing the fire risk and health problems associated with raw cotton dust. A shift in focus to education in the community sees that women and girls have access to schooling. Helping farmers convert to organic farming means they do not use chemicals that damage their health, the environment and soil quality. The result is healthy farmers with bigger harvests.

Farmers and workers feel safe knowing they are earning a decent income. Never has this been so important as during the COVID-19 pandemic. All workers at our Fairtrade accredited factory have written employment contracts – something very rare in India. During India’s lockdown, with all staff at home and unable to work, our factory continued to pay full salary to everyone. In addition, all medical costs are covered if an employee or their family tests positive for the virus. Thankfully, none of them have so far, and we hope that continues.

Before re-opening, new working practices and equipment were put in place to keep workers safe. In addition to increased hygiene and PPE, workers are now being picked up from their doorsteps by specially hired buses to avoid public transport. All workers have their temperature checked before boarding the bus, at the entry gate and every two hours throughout the day. Staggered lunch and tea breaks also facilitate social distancing.

Closer to home, our UK business partners have adapted their practices and have had reduced services in some cases. Some of our customers and partners have been furloughed, so some orders have been delayed or put on hold. Our overall ethos of co-operation, collaboration and positive working relationships has been invaluable at a time like this.

We are a small family business and have faced the same challenges as the rest of the nation, juggling work and family life. As we have been adapting, we’ve noticed how practical a bit of cotton fabric can be!

Half a tea towel in your bag is very useful if you want something to sit on or open a gate when you don’t have gloves or hand sanitiser. A face covering made of organic Fairtrade cotton feels reassuringly soft against your skin, as well as nourishing for your soul!

We feel lucky that cotton doesn’t go off or expire, it doesn’t require refrigeration and we don’t have to juggle with multiple ingredients with different storage needs. It is a quiet, peaceful, product that can survive a period of hibernation without harm.

If you have some spare time, we’d encourage you to research the difference between Fairtrade organic and non-organic cotton, you’ll be surprised at the difference. Organic cotton is only watered by rainfall so doesn’t drain rivers or lakes. Organic cotton uses no harmful chemicals which protects workers and reduces the risk of cancer and respiratory problems. The list goes on...

Our current favourite product is our “DIY Rainbow thank you to keyworkers bag”. http://cottonsmiles.co.uk/bag_rbow/index.html. We don’t need to explain why.

10 % to NHS charities

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