COTTON Australia has issued a report outlining the significant economic and social contributions the industry makes to Australia.
The body has got on the front foot with its Cotton With A Conscience report to highlight the positives of the industry, which many producers feel has become a scapegoat outside of agriculture for a host of problems such as water shortages during the drought, highlighting in particular the social benefits the sector creates.
While the environmental credentials of the cotton sector, such as the vast decrease in the use of pesticides and water in the modern era, have been frequently documented, Cotton Australia spokesperson Brooke Summers said the report had been commissioned to highlight other positives within the industry.
"For many years, the Australian cotton industry has worked hard to assess and report our environmental sustainability, but on the social side, there's a great untold story," Ms Summers said.
"We haven't been very good at telling the stories of cotton's social contributions, even though our farmers, local Cotton Grower Associations and industry groups have been doing great things for decades," Ms Summers said.
Cotton plays an important role in the regional economies and communities of much of southern Queensland and NSW, with major production zones stretching almost 1700km from Clermont, in central Queensland, to Jerilderie, in NSW's Riverina.
Economically, Cotton Australia found the Australian cotton industry directly employed 12,500 people mostly on family farms in rural areas and contributed on average a whopping $1.8 billion a year to the national economy via seed and lint production.
The production statistics are mind-boggling.
From the relatively small number of cotton producers across Australia enough fibre is produced to clothe a staggering 375 million people.
There were also strong spin-off benefits to the small rural towns within cotton country.
Some 93 per cent of regular expenditure of cotton farmers was spent in local towns, helping create valuable employment and aid with rural retention.
However, it was not just the easily quantifiable economic wins from cotton the report sought to point out.
Cotton Australia also highlighted the myriad social benefits of the industry.
In particular, the industry was found to be a strong supporter of women.
While agriculture as a whole remains disproportionately represented by males, in cotton over 60pc of people working in key industry organisations are women.
Cotton farmers were also found to be strong supporters of their local communities, with 71pc making regular donations to local charities and programs along with volunteering for community groups and projects, with nine out of ten cotton farmers doing some volunteer work and six out of ten doing so either monthly or more frequently.
The report also looked to dispel the popularly held myth that the cotton industry is dominated by corporate farmers and overseas investors, highlighting that 90pc of Australia's cotton farms are family owned and operated.
Ms Summer said these volunteering farmers helped maintain the social fabric of small communities.
"As anyone who's lived in a rural town knows, so much of their vibrancy comes from the people who volunteer their time and resources to make things happen," Ms Summers said.
The Cotton with a Conscience report included 25 case study examples of how the cotton industry was giving back, from donating cotton towels to WIRES (Wildlife Information and Rescue Service) during the recent bushfires and releasing more than 200,000 baby fish into rivers, to tackling issues like Aboriginal employment and rural mental health.
"We've discovered our stakeholders are equally interested in the social contributions of our industry, particularly as there are some big challenges globally around cotton, including child labour and the exploitation of women in some countries.
"It's important that our supply chain partners, and consumers of Australian cotton know our domestic industry treats its workers fairly, provides safe workplaces and opportunities, and is doing its best to contribute in a positive way to cotton communities.
And Cotton Australia intends to make the cotton industry's social licence the subject of more than just a one-off report,
Together with the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Cotton Australia is currently working on establishing industry-wide social targets and a follow-up piece of research that will provide further evidence and hard data around cotton's social and economic contributions.