Cotton: Why it matters for a more sustainable future

05 October 2023

A fair, multilateral cotton trading system is vital to realizing the full economic, social and environmental benefits the crop can offer – for inclusive development.

© FAO/Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak | The cotton sector plays a key role in driving economic development, international trade and reducing poverty. Seen above, a farmer picks cotton in the Senegalese town of Velingara.

Cotton – one of the world's leading agricultural commodities – is back in the spotlight, on the occasion of World Cotton Day, marked annually on 7 October.

The 2023 celebration featured a joint event in Vienna, in which UNCTAD was a partner, under the theme “Making cotton fair and sustainable for all, from farm to fashion”.

World Cotton Day aims to raise awareness on the importance of global market access for cotton and cotton-related goods from the world's least developed countries.

It also advocates for equitable trade policies and ways to empower developing nations to derive greater benefits from each stage of the cotton value chain. 

UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan urged “boosting the development benefits of cotton by growing it more sustainably, levelling the playing field for trade and ensuring farmers receive a fair income.”

In 2022, world production of raw cotton was valued at about $50 billion, while global trade in cotton fibre stood at $20 billion, according to UN estimates.

Celebrating cotton, promoting development

World Cotton Day, officially recognized in a UN General Assembly resolution in 2021, responded to a proposal submitted by the so-called Cotton-4 countries, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, which are among the main producers of the crop in sub-Saharan Africa.

It celebrates cotton’s role in lifting up people and communities, having sustained 32 million farmers – almost half of them women – and benefited more than 100 million families across 80 countries on five continents.

Cotton is one of the most common fabrics in our wardrobes. It is comfortable, hypoallergenic, breathable and durable.

In addition to its fibre used in textiles and apparel, food products can be derived from cotton, such as edible oil and animal feed from the seed.

Cotton-based filaments are appealing to 3D printers because they conduct heat well, become stronger when wet and are more scalable than materials like wood.

Taking cotton to the next level

Echoing calls from partner organizations, UNCTAD underscores the need for an international cotton trading system that is rules-based, non-discriminatory, inclusive, predictable and transparent.

Such a system is crucial to ensuring decent work and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of vulnerable people around the globe.

There is also a pressing need for greater investments to expand value-added processing of cotton in developing countries.

This can create fresh income-generating opportunities, especially for farmers, by enhancing the value of cotton fire and producing by-products from various residues and wastes generated along the value chain.

How UNCTAD is helping

Building on a series of capacity-building projects to support cotton by-products in Africa, UNCTAD recently conducted feasibility studies for Togo and Malawi, outlining opportunities and policy recommendations to bolster cotton by­-products. This will form the basis for further capacity-building activities, funding permitting.

In Malawi, UNCTAD designed an implementation strategy to develop cotton by-products in response to the national government’s request to set up an inter-ministerial working group on the topic.

The strategy includes cotton-based industrialization pathways for Malawi, by leveraging the potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area.