Neutral® is a brand built around respect for the people and resources that go into making its clothes. A leader in more sustainable apparel production for the B2B market, it prioritizes certified, sustainable materials in all the products it puts out into the world.

As a company that has long been using GOTS-certified cotton (together with Fairtrade, EU Ecolabel, SA8000, and GRS), Neutral® has also been involved in supporting cotton farmers in their transition to organic while helping to maintain a critical wildlife corridor in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Back in 2015, Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation) and WWF India launched an ongoing project to promote the cultivation of organic cotton in the Satpuda-Pench corridor of Central India, adjacent to the Pench Tiger Reserve. Neutral® supported the farmers on the ground by purchasing the transitional cotton with an additional premium of 10%, giving them an incentive to continue growing organic, and using it in its Tiger Cotton line.

We spoke to co-owner Patricia Bech about the early-stage investment made by Neutral® in a project that is now expanding even further, and how as a small company it successfully leveraged its agency to push for social and environmental change, improving outcomes for biodiversity by building out its supply chain.

Textile Exchange: How did Neutral® begin to incorporate biodiversity as a factor in its raw materials decisions?

Patricia: At Neutral® we have been working with sustainability for over 17 years. It has been part of our brand since the very beginning, back when it was still a non-profitable way of doing business. But this has changed and every year we see the market for sustainable textiles is growing.  

One pivotal moment for our biodiversity work was in 2015, when Neutral®’s founder Lars Bech attended Textile Exchange’s yearly Textile Sustainability Conference and met Murli Dhar from WWF India and Anita Chester from Laudes Foundation. They had joined forces to help farmers in Madhya Pradesh transition to organic, focusing on an ecologically important area where farmers grow their cotton between two ancient forests and their fields function as a wildlife corridor for tigers.

Textile Exchange: Neutral® played a key role in this project by purchasing the in-conversion cotton at a 10% premium from the farmers. How did you successfully incorporate it into your product line?

Patricia: Every Neutral® product is made of 100% GOTS certified, Fairtrade organic cotton. So, we could not use the in-conversion cotton products because it was not yet certified organic. But we wanted to join the project and support this transition, which led to the creation of Tiger Cotton – an in-conversion cotton line by the Neutral® family. These products are made of 100% in-conversion cotton, are EU Ecolabel certified and have been made in SA8000 certified facilities.

Textile Exchange: Why did you feel that it was so important to start using the in-conversion cotton in your products?

Patricia: When transitioning to organic farming, it takes three to four years to eliminate residues of chemicals and successfully restore the soil. In this conversion period, the output of cotton declines before it rises again, putting financial pressure on farmers who make the transition. Plus, we found that farmers could only get a price equal to conventional cotton on the open market because the cotton was not yet certified organic.

So, Neutral® decided to pay a premium directly to the cotton farmers in the conversion period to give them a motivation to keep transitioning their fields into organic. This was before there were shortages of organic cotton, and a fair price for it. It was still difficult to sell the in-conversion cotton at a higher price than conventional, which was fundamental to keeping smallholder cotton farmers motivated.

Textile Exchange: How does this project directly impact biodiversity? Do you have any data to share on impacts that you have already achieved? 

Patricia: Working with organic agriculture provides a range of services to nature. The cotton farmers use natural techniques to restrict pests, weeds and disease, and maintain a healthy soil. Agronomic practices like crop rotation, green manure and catch and cover crops have been shown to decrease leaching of nutrients and reduce the water run-off into water bodies. The farmers are also educated in tank silt application, which is a pre-sowing soil management practice, and drip irrigation, to increase the efficiency of their water management.  

Organic agriculture allows farmers to rotate cotton, their cash crop, with food crops for local consumption. Every crop has a specific function that benefits the organic system while also providing food to the farmers’ families.

Textile Exchange: How have you brought your suppliers on board to support your biodiversity targets? 

Patricia: It wouldn’t have been possible to create Tiger Cotton if it hadn’t been for our strong partnership with our suppliers. We had to build up a completely new supply chain to integrate in-conversion cotton, starting from the cotton cooperative in Madhya Pradesh to the ginner, spinner and so on.

Because our suppliers have the same mindset, they were in it from the beginning and the project was just as important to them as to us. We are lucky to have supply chain partners like this, who also work to make the world a better place for both people and the planet.

Textile Exchange: What are the highlights from your work on biodiversity over the past year, and what goals are you working on achieving?

Patricia: Through the collaboration, we have supported over 4,000 cotton farmers in their journey towards becoming certified organic in Madhya Pradesh so far. Our goal is to help even more farmers convert to organic cotton growing.

In the future, we hope to include more farmers from Madhya Pradesh. We are also proud to say that Tiger Cotton has been such a success that we are starting to include in-conversion cotton from other areas in India as well. We are welcoming them to the Tiger Cotton family and are working hard to tell and share their stories.