21 February 2019 LESSONS Fashion

Accelerating Organic Cotton in China by Replicating Behavioral Change

Baskets scattered on a big pile of raw cotton

This initiative sought to increase domestic cultivation of organic cotton in China and cultivate relationships with key actors to build demand for organic cotton.


  1. Developing a partner implementation network using a hub-and-spoke approach
  2. Implementing farmer training and delivery using a train-the-trainer and farmer field school model to promote organic cotton methods
  3. Promoting sustainable behaviour change for sustained organic cotton cultivation
  4. Creating sustainable models and lasting relationships based on agricultural best practices and full realization within the value chain
  5. Building demand for subsequent scale of organic production through the cultivation of networks and relationships with relevant governments and industry leaders to encourage and support investment in the scaling of organic cotton


Partner: RARE, Inc.

Investment: EUR 2.76 million (C&A Foundation)

Duration: 4 years (2015-19)

Geographic region: China


Initiative design was based on inaccurate assumptions

Well informed business development model was missing;

Robust cost benefit and value chain analysis was missing;

Farm losses during transition to organic were significant; 

Initial targets not realistic to scale of initiative 

Revised targets were partially achieved

Farm partners appreciated agronomic and technical training on organic cultivation; Initiative close to meeting the renegotiated targets for land under cotton in transition;

On track to meet target of 457 certified/IT farmers;

Targets for seed cotton yield were not expected to be met

Various innovative elements were not relevant to the initiative's operating context

Behavioural change model and hub and spoke model not relevant to context of commercial farms with hired labour;

Proposed closed loop model not implemented due to lack of scale of farmer production and inability to market farm by-products;

Working with commercial farms minimized economic risks to farmers and helped meet with cotton lint targets

Established institutional knowledge and networks in China’s fashion value chain gained momentum later

Initiative adopted a primarily supply-driven rather than market-driven approach;

Efforts to engage value chain actors and brands developed gradually;

Initiative signed smaller pre-orders but larger brands are relcutant to sign up

What did we learn?

C&A Foundation

Net economic returns to farmers is the most significant driver related to farmer adoption of sustainable cotton practices

Models of organic cotton cultivation must address profitability of rotation crops

Rigourous feasibility studies are essential to inform initiative design when operating in a new context

For Partners & Others

Site selection is an important factor in convincing farmers to adopt organic cotton cultivation

In-depth understanding of the value chain and firm partnerships with relevant players is vital for organic cotton initiatives

Advantages in associating with farms with substantial previous experience in sustainable cotton (such as BCI etc.) helps accelerate the transition to organic practices

C&A Foundation's Management Response:

The project with RARE, initiated in 2015, was one of the first organic cotton related initiatives that C&A Foundation supported. The foundation considered China an important geography to expand to, given its global ranking in terms of cotton production and as the largest manufacturing/sourcing base for the garment industry. Despite it being the second largest producer of cotton, organic cotton production had not taken off in China. This initiative was presented by RARE to the foundation and the proposed idea of using behaviour change approaches to influence uptake of organic cotton farming sounded promising. The foundation was willing to experiment with bold and new ways, that went beyond traditional farmer capacity building approaches, to target sustainability.


Read the full response here

RARE's Management Response:

Rare takes this opportunity to sincerely thank C&A Foundation for supporting its work in China and the willingness to take risks. The role of a foundation and philanthropy is to explore new paths, test innovative approaches, and be willing to shift with learning – with the ultimate goal of social and environmental impacts. Rare is proud to have partnered with C&A Foundation on this project and together we have made great progress. We have learned a great deal about growing organic cotton, and there is much left to learn.

Rare welcomes C&A Foundation’s transparent evaluation process. That said, the timing between July and September 2018 was not an ideal time to conduct the evaluation because it was mid-way through the third growing season. At that time, that year’s harvest had not been completed, yield and cost data were not available, and cotton purchases had not been finalized. Now that the 2018 harvest is completed, Rare is in a better position to articulate the progress made and are submitting this REVISED management response for your kind consideration.

Read the full response here