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The Rupp Report: Interlaken - The Summit Of The Global Cotton Industry, Part II

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

As mentioned two weeks ago, this year's International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) Meeting will take place October 7-12 at the Congress Centre Kursaal Interlaken, in Switzerland. The theme of the congress is "Shaping Sustainability in the Cotton Value Chain." Over the next few weeks, the Rupp Report will focus on this event with a selection of issues related to the congress agenda. This week, the eye is on Switzerland and its organizing committee.

Long Tradition
Switzerland has a very long tradition in the entire textile business. From the past, insiders divided the country into five basic sectors: silk, cotton, embroidery, narrow fabrics, and chemicals and finishing. For centuries, Switzerland, and mainly the Zurich area with all its silk spinners and weavers around Lake Zurich, was the center of the global silk trade, up to the 1980s, when the Chinese started to trade silk on their own and that silk became a commodity.

Cotton was located in the old town of St. Gallen. After the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, the Swiss cotton spinners discovered hydropower. They placed countless spinning mills along countless rivers throughout the region of the mid and eastern part of Switzerland. Most of those mills have disappeared today.

Embroidery goes along with cotton. St. Gallen is still the center of embroidery in Switzerland. Most of the embroidered fabrics, which can be seen on the high fashion catwalks around the globe, are coming from St. Gallen.

The ribbon and narrow fabrics industry settled with the arrival of the French Huguenots in the cantons of Basel and Aargau, where some of them are still producing narrow fabrics and ribbons. The early expression for ribbons was "passements," so the people were called "passementiers."

Last, but not least, are chemicals and, consequently, finishing. This industry started centuries ago near or in the town of Basel, where some either still have their headquarters or have moved recently to Singapore. Most of these companies started their businesses with chemicals and dyestuffs for textile dyeing.

Today, Switzerland is still among the biggest suppliers of high quality textile machinery, and its machinery is recognized for its reliability and excellent price/quality ratio.

Host Country
But these historic facts are not the only reasons for hosting the 71st ICAC meeting in Interlaken: It's more that the issues to be discussed at the event go along with the people's increasing environmental consciousness. On top of that, Switzerland has developed a quite successful business sector with sustainable textile products in some department stores and retail shops. Or, as Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch - state secretary of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), and a member of the co-organizing committee - said: "What has started as real experimental pioneer work has become a matter of course - for enterprises as well as consumers. In order to advance this case and to share experiences, we wish to follow up during the ICAC conference in Interlaken on previous discussions on sustainability that have taken place over the past years."

Ineichen-Fleisch also mentioned another reason SECO became active in this sector: "The potential for sustainability in the cotton value chain is also the reason why Switzerland addresses the issue as an element of the work of the Economic Cooperation and Development Division of the SECO. The aim of these cotton related activities is to improve livelihoods and thus contribute to poverty alleviation in developing countries and countries in transition through trade promotion."

Set And Improve Framework Conditions
According to SECO, one approach toward reaching the goal is to set and improve framework conditions. In this regard, SECO is engaged through Geneva-based IDEAS Centre to support the Cotton 4 — comprising the African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — in order to strengthen their negotiation capacity and, therefore, to better defend their interests in the Doha Development Round, as only the informed and effective influence on cotton subsidy programs may contribute to reaching acceptable cotton price levels. IDEAS is an independent nonprofit organization that provides support to low-income countries to help them integrate into the world trading system.

Another approach is to strengthen competitiveness of cotton market participants through differentiation of the products because this supports better integration into the world market. In this regard, SECO works along the cotton supply chain to implement private voluntary sustainability systems. SECO has been a leading supporter of fair trade and organic production, and it has helped to introduce sustainable consumption and production patterns through projects in Kyrgyzstan and West Africa, working in cooperation with Switzerland-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Helvetas Swiss to develop sustainable cotton value chains.

The program has benefited approximately 10,000 cotton farmers in the partner countries by providing increased incomes, improved working conditions and an improved social infrastructure in their villages. In addition to supporting niche market sustainability systems, SECO has long supported the establishment among multiple stakeholders of sustainability initiatives and roundtables for agricultural commodities.

SECO also contributes to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which aims to bring sustainability into the mainstream in the cotton value chain. During the 2011-12 season, BCI and its partners worked with 125,000 cotton farmers in Brazil, India, Pakistan and West Africa. The initiative also is involved in activities in China, and many other countries have expressed an interest in participating in its program.

Let's give Ineichen-Fleisch the final words in this Rupp Report: "As a host, we believe that Interlaken will be the perfect place to discuss and try out new forms of dialogue: small and scenic, situated between mountains and lakes, this venue will help us to focus and have a frank exchange of views. We also hope that new stakeholders will take the opportunity to join in and enrich our discussions."

The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), based in Washington, was founded in 1939. At that time, global cotton stocks totaled nearly 25 million bales, more than half of which were located in the United States. ICAC states its mission is "to assist governments in fostering a healthy world cotton economy. The role of the ICAC is to raise awareness, to provide information and to serve as a catalyst for cooperative action on issues of international significance."

September 4, 2012