Coton bio Cottonforlife cultivé en Égypte par Filmar

Picking up the thread

Organic and sustainable Egyptian cotton

Grown exclusively in the Nile delta and characterised by fine thread counts and high resistance, ‘white gold’ has for years been the most precious of white fluffy material. Its long staples make it ideal for the production of high-end intimate apparel and stockings, as well as knitwear and shirts, but it has been declining lately. Now a new project to expand the organic variety has emerged on the scene.

Coton bio Cottonforlife cultivé en Égypte par Filmar

To many, ‘white gold’ is the material of engagement rings, wedding bands and fine jewellery. But to those in the know in the textile industry, it is more precious than metal. Giza 45 is an extremely high quality, extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, considered one of the most valuable in the world.

Yet, because of its low yield and the difficulties local producers have in getting it to international customers, it has been slowly disappearing from the market. That is beginning to change thanks, in part, to Italian yarn producer Filmar, a long-time buyer of cotton from Egypt. The company, which has been producing the raw material since 2008, is betting that a new project can both boost its business and help local communities. Cottonforlife is a five-year programme to grow locally planted and harvested organic Giza 45 and its valuable sibling Giza 87.

Sustainability isn’t a limit but an asset, a value.

Presenting Cottonforlife at Milan's recently concluded Universal Exposition, Filmar chief executive Marco Marzoli said the project seeks to promote and sustain the cultivation of Egyptian organic cotton in a manner that will help the country create an eco-friendly and socially responsible textile industry – while helping to promote sustainable fashion.

The focus is on ‘planet, people and profit’, Marzoli said. The environmental credentials are solid: the cotton is grown without use of pesticides or other toxic chemicals; water use is limited and both the supply chain and industrial processes are monitored and certified by independent, internationally-recognised certification authorities. It also makes sound business sense: consumers are willing to pay more for cotton grown and harvested organically.

Coton bio Cottonforlife cultivé en Égypte par Filmar

Thread care

Working alongside the Italian company, whose home is near the northern Italian city of Brescia, are the Egyptian government and Alex Bank, the country's largest, privately owned bank (controlled by Intesa Sanpaolo Group).

"This is the realisation of a dream", Marzoli told K magazine. "When we decided to launch this project we had recently completed our production chain in Egypt, where we now have complete control. We are probably the only company in the world at this point to control all our raw materials, like a starred restaurant.”

“Some 70 per cent of the world's cotton is produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”, Marzoli said, adding that Egyptian cotton is largely GMO-free. The aim, he explained, is to make sure it remains so.

Aside from guaranteeing the material’s purity, Cottonforlife has other ambitions: "Sustainability in fashion isn’t just a fashion", Marzoli said. "It’s necessary because it makes business sense. It’s not just marketing: you use fewer chemicals, water and energy, and this is business. Sustainability isn’t a limit but an asset, a value."

Coton bio Cottonforlife cultivé en Égypte par Filmar

Silk purse

According to the Cotton Museum of Cairo, Giza 45 made its appearance in 1820, when Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, crossed seeds of Sea Island and Brazilian cotton and planted them for the first time. Filmar is currently cultivating some 40 hectares near Damietta, on the Nile delta, a few kilometres from Egypt's north-eastern Mediterranean shore, with plans to expand to other parts of the country.

‘White gold’ represents a mere 0.4 per cent of the country's total annual cotton production, although it is valued for its resistance, clean look and freedom of impurities. Yarns and fabrics produced with it are soft and silky to the touch.

While it is undoubtedly prized, ELS cotton production has declined over the years as large customers have favoured cheaper alternatives; and Egypt's younger generations have migrated to the cities and abroad in search of better prospects.

The initiative isn't only about cotton: it's about communities too, Piera Francesca Solinas, Filmar's corporate social responsibility manager, told K. All stakeholders have been involved: from local agricultural communities - especially women (who make up the largest share of cotton pickers) and young people - to the national technical education ministry and Cairo's Cotton Research Institute.

"In this first year of the project, we have focused on helping workers re-evaluate and appreciate their work, trying to help them understand that it is a source of wealth that shouldn't be lost," said Solinas.

Coton bio Cottonforlife cultivé en Égypte par Filmar

Rich soil

Among the efforts being made to support local communities, mothers are being encouraged to send their children to school, as cotton-growing areas have low levels of education. Women are also being trained in techniques to help safeguard the local environment through, for example, composting and recycling.

"We are trying to build up confidence in local communities, especially in areas where there are strong emigration flows. The first thing young people tell you is that they want to leave their country. We have to help them understand that there is great wealth in their own land. We try to teach them that organic cotton can be a resource for their future, but they have to learn to do things the way the market demands. You can't use pesticides, for example."

Solinas explained that - together with the ministry of technical education - programmes are being developed to convert some schools in cotton-growing areas into technical schools where young people will, among other things, experiment with organic cotton planting and growing. "We're taking a bottom-up approach. This way young people will also help spread the message of organic cotton's importance to their families and communities."

We try to help local workers understand that cotton is a source of wealth that shouldn't be lost.

Cottonforlife's social sustainability efforts click with contemporary consumers, according to Solinas. She cited how in a 2014 Nielsen survey entitled ‘Doing Well By Doing Good’, which involved consumers in 60 countries, 55 per cent of respondents said they were willing to spend more for socially responsible products and services.

Yarns produced with Cottonforlife's first harvest, under the name of Nilo, debuted at the January 2016 edition of Florence's yarn fair Pitti Filati. Interested customers include big fashion names, from knitwear to intimate apparel and hosiery, Solinas claimed, pointing out there are 36 colours and many nuances.

Cottonforlife is also about helping Egypt, where Marzoli's father Luigi (Filmar’s founder) went many years ago to fulfil his own dream of making high-quality cotton. And while it's early days, Cottonforlife promises to be beneficial for all involved.