“We are already in communities where our shops operate and we want to use the foundation to do the same in communities where our suppliers operate,” said Sean Allam, head of product sourcing at John Lewis.
“We are trying to drive change in our supply chain.”
The first major project supported by the Foundation is a training programme for cotton farmers in Gujerat, India. Reel Cotton is aiming to help 1,500 small-scale farmers improve the way they grow cotton so that they can improve productivity and become more profitable.
John Lewis is spending £180,000, mainly on training as well as demonstration compost pits, wormeries and irrigation schemes so that farmers can cut their costs and improve harvests.
“Sustainability is a real issue in cotton,” Allam said. “It is an important raw material for us and we are trying to learn with this project how to connect our supply chain to a sustainable cotton source.”
John Lewis’s move comes as the retail industry recognises the need to support small-scale cotton farmers to ensure security of supply.
Last year’s 154pc rise in cotton prices was seen as a warning of problems
The retailer is working with the social enterprise Cotton Connect, which was set up by the Shell Foundation, to map supply chain and identify other areas where it could work with cotton farmers who are already producing the raw material for John Lewis products.
Anita Chester, CEO of Cotton Connect, said: “We are helping farmers increase profits by decreasing their input costs and cutting out the middle men but the whole operation runs at the existing market price.”
Cotton Connect co-ordinates the supply chain to ensure that its partner retailers get all the cotton they need and farmers are able to sell all the cotton they produce.
But in total just 8,000 tonnes of Reel Cotton were produced last year.
John Lewis will use just 50 tonnes of the first 1,000 tonnes produced by farmers it supported last year in specially labelled bath mats which go on sale in the autumn. They will be marked with a John Lewis Foundation logo.
A spokeswoman for John Lewis said it was starting small and hoped to increase the amount of Reel Cotton it used in future years.
The John Lewis Foundation was set up five years ago with a £350,000 donation from the company. On-going funding is provided by sales of Bags for Life, internal fundraising and a policy of donating a share of any additional profits generated by its work.
Until now it has focused on small-scale projects such as educational grants for workers and their children.
The three-year cotton project in Gujerat is ten times the scale of previous projects in terms of John Lewis’s financial investment and the first to involve an external agency.
Allam said the Foundation is set to purse two or three more projects of a similar scale in the next two or three years, some of which are likely to focus on other raw materials beyond cotton.