When it came to the family business, Hetalbai Laktaria knew that it was best to keep her opinions to herself. In the village of Ranmalpur in western India, the men tend to look after the farms and the women stay at home. In Laktaria's home, her husband and brother-in-law managed the cotton fields, while she cooked, cleaned and looked after the children.
Three years ago, those unwritten rules started to change with the start of a new project aimed at female cotton farmers. "A woman named Roopaben came to our village and started teaching all the women about different methods for farming. She taught us to use less chemical fertiliser because it was bad for the crop. She taught us to tie a cloth around our faces and use gloves on our hands when spraying the fertiliser. She taught us that we didn't need to flood the entire field to grow cotton, and that too much water could even spoil the crop," Laktaria says.
In drought-prone Gujarat, the conventional wisdom is that more water means more crop. Laktaria went home that evening and told her husband what she'd learned at the training camp. For Laktaria, who had dropped out of school at 13, and married at 19, her knowledge about cotton farming heightened her status in the family. "My husband listened to me and we tried the things they taught us," she says.
The new techniques worked. Laktaria's farms produced 300 kg more cotton than the previous year. About 380 women from Ranmalpur have been attending the training camps in the village for the last three years. The camps are run by a social enterprise called CottonConnect and supported financially by Primark. Although Primark does not have a figure for how much cotton it buys, it is the most common fabric in its clothes. The budget fast-fashion retailer has been criticised for profiting from cheap fashion in developed nations by sourcing from clothing suppliers in poorer parts of the world, where unethical or exploitative labour practices are much harder to regulate.
In 2013, Primark was one of many high-street fashion brands criticised for the horrific labour practices in garment factories from which they sourced in Bangladesh, where 1,135 factory workers died after the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex.
India is the world's second largest producer of cotton after China. The majority of the world's 100 million cotton farmers are smallholders in developing countries, says Orsola de Castro, founder and director of ethical fashion campaign group Fashion Revolution, and, far away from the shiny stores of brands like Primark, the industry can be brutal for farmers who face competition from unfair world prices and unscrupulous middle men. "Many farmers find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of debt and poverty," she adds. "For farmers, the challenges range from the impact of climate change, poor prices for seed cotton, through to competition from highly subsidised producers in rich countries and poor terms of trade. In particular, government subsidies for cotton farmers in rich countries, particularly the US, create a market with artificially low prices in which small-scale farmers are unable to compete." Primark's involvement in the Ranmalpur programme is part of the company's efforts to improve ethical standards in the retail brand's £19bn business, which sources most of its garments from developing countries. Already 1,251 women have participated in the retailer's schemes, which include yield-increasing programmes and healthcare drives. Primark hopes to increase that figure to 10,000 in the next six years.
A spokesperson said, "Although Primark buys no cotton direct from producers, our long-term ambition is to ensure all the cotton in our supply chain is sourced sustainably."