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The Better Cotton Initiative: Making Sustainable Cotton Mainstream?

| Wednesday March 5th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Cotton has played a critical role throughout human history“King Cotton,” as it came to be known in the American South, has an unsettled past.

The crop has played a critical role throughout history. As with all things intertwined with human endeavor, cotton bears witness to our triumph and tragedy, often playing a central role in each.

Enduring the threefold challenge of economic, social and environmental issues, cotton production is often implicated as unsustainable and subject to the  allure and consequence of profit at all cost. Global cotton production comes increasingly from low-wage areas of the developing world like China, India, Africa, Bangladesh and Latin America.

Cotton accounts for 40 percent of global textile production, supporting the livelihoods of 300 million people or nearly 7 percent of all labor in the developing world. The scale of global cotton reflects how much we depend on it and how far removed most of us are from the effects of its production and consumption. The cotton industry reaches all the way from small-holder farmers living in poverty to the chic fashion salons of New York and Europe.

According to the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) the cotton industry accounts for about 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals used worldwide. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes about 20,000 liters (more than 5,200 gallons) of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, roughly the cotton required to produce one T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

Cotton represents 2.6 percent of the water footprint for all goods and services consumed globally. Irrigation supports 70 percent of global cotton production and, according to estimates by the Environmental Justice Foundation, 15 to 35 percent of those water withdrawals are considered unsustainable.

Demand for organic and fair trade cotton mounts in the face of this environmental impact, as well as the low incomes of tens of millions of cotton farmers in the developing world. But the challenge of meeting the global scale of cotton production demands a mainstream approach for which any niche market is ill-suited.

This is not to say that fair trade and organic certification programs do not play an important role, but making King Cotton sustainable, in a triple-bottom-line sort of way, requires a process that matches the scale of global impact from cotton production, using partnerships and core principles to make best practices mainstream.

Better cotton

The first stirrings of the what is now the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) began in 2005 when a group of commodity experts convened in a WWF-hosted roundtable discussion to consider solutions for global agriculture.

Any effective mechanism to impact change in cotton production requires a set of guiding principles. It took several years of preparation, but in 2009 the Better Cotton Initiative formally organized–publishing, in partnership with retailers, manufacturers, advisory groups and NGOs, its first set of global standards known as the Production Principals and Criteria, the foundation of the Better Cotton System.

The six core elements of the Production Principles and Criteria standard stress a holistic approach to Better Cotton:

  1. Better Cotton is produced by farmers who minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices.
  2. Better Cotton is produced by farmers who use water efficiently and care for the availability of water.
  3. Better Cotton is produced by farmers who care for the health of the soil.
  4. Better Cotton is produced by farmers who conserve natural habitats.
  5. Better Cotton is produced by farmers who care for and preserve the quality of the fibre.
  6. Better Cotton is produced by farmers who promote Decent Work.

The Better Cotton Standard is a demand-driven mechanism aimed principally for capacity-building at the initial production stage. In-the-field training, support and measurement of production methods help farmers reduce environmental impact while increasing efficiency and productivity. Instead of being paid a premium for output of certified fair trade or organic cotton, small-holder farms, and indeed farms of all sizes, learn to better manage their cotton production and in the process increase their income.

Maintaining “standards compliance” is more effective when farmers improve their lives and incomes through better management. With no premium for certification, demand for sustainable cotton shifts to mainstream supply chains instead of relying solely on smaller niche markets for distribution.

Partnership is the nexus of positive change, turning theoretical principles into real impact. The key to Better Cotton is its collaboration with Implementing Partner organizations that are working directly with farmers to improve water efficiency, reduce cost and use of chemicals, and improve crop yield.

Levi Strauss & Co., is both an Implementing Partner and Pioneer Member with BCI–and not surprisingly, if not only for the iconic brand’s dependence on cotton but also for the company’s adoption of sustainability as a core component of its mission.

“Becoming a Pioneer Member of BCI this year reflects our company’s commitment since 2009 to transform how cotton is cultivated for our business, our consumers, and the millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries who depend on it for their livelihood,” says Manuel Baigorri, director of global sustainability operations for Levi Strauss & Co.

“We have served on the BCI Board for a number of years and are a member of the Better Cotton Fast Track Program,” (BCFT).

Better Cotton Fast Track

better-cotton-initiativeLaunched in 2010, the Better Cotton Fast Track is an independent coalition of private and public partners managed by the Sustainable Trade Initiative. BCFT partners channel funds directly into farmer training and capacity building around the Better Cotton Standard. As the name implies, Better Cotton Fast Track helps escalate Better Cotton as a mainstream sustainable commodity in the marketplace.

“This allows BCI and its partners to reach more regions, train more farmers and produce more Better Cotton, dramatically accelerating the scale-up of Better Cotton worldwide,” says Baigorri.

The latest available harvest report shows that in 2012 more than $9.6 million was invested in 31 projects throughout Mali, Brazil, Pakistan, India and China–producing 623,000 metric tons of Better Cotton lint (“seed” cotton is before ginning, “lint” cotton is after ginning). “This is increasing as we speak,” Baigorri adds.

BCI monitors water and pesticide use at the local, field and farm level. Overall success is gauged by total number of hectares under cultivation within the Better Cotton Standard. Results so far from the first three BCI harvests show consistently positive trends in both increased water efficiency and reduced pesticide use. Case studies in India show a 30 percent reduction in pesticide use and a 17 percent reduction in water use, with a 14 percent increase in profitability over control farmers in the study.

Numbers help quantify improvement, but stories from the field bring the full impact of BCI into focus. Muhammad Ramzan farms five “sandy acres” of Better Cotton in Yazman, Pakistan. It is a challenging area for a cotton farmer where finding enough water is difficult and expensive. For Ramzan, the benefits of adopting the Better Cotton Standard are profound:

“I acted upon their advice even though this was a new technique for me. This was a turning point in my cotton growing history. The irrigation efficiency of my farm doubled, and I saved money and time. And the most important thing–my children went back to school.”

Water, cotton and a pair of jeans

In 2007 Levi’s conducted a lifecycle assessment for their two of their most iconic products: a pair of Levi’s® 501 jeans and Dockers® Original Khakis. Focusing on water, climate and energy impacts, what they found surprised them.

“Our study demonstrated that the greatest opportunities for reducing the environmental impacts of our products are at the beginning–that is, at the cotton agriculture stage–and at the consumer use stage (repeated washing and drying),” says Baigorri. The Care Tag for Our Planet Initiative, launched in partnership with Goodwill Industries, works to reduce impact at the consumer end. The Better Cotton Standard offers an effective response at the agricultural stage.

“The Better Cotton Initiative brings many stakeholders together to create scalable solutions designed to reduce water use in cotton cultivation. The Better Cotton Standard addresses water use in cotton cultivation and is one of our responses to the impacts created by our use of cotton in our products.”

Chain of custody: Driving demand for Better Cotton

Building capacity and best practices at the production level are primary goals for Better Cotton, but without awareness and demand there is little lasting impact. The market is complex and diverse.

In the manner that BCI’s Production Principles and Criteria guide cotton at its source of production, the Better Cotton Chain of Custody Guidelines (CoC) “provide guidance on Better Cotton CoC requirements for all supply chain actors.”

The CoC uses a “Mass-Balance” (MBa) mechanism to monitor and verify flow of Better Cotton across the supply chain, from Implementing and Strategic partners at the farm-to-ginner level to retailers and brands making claims about Better Cotton procurement.

“This approach of the BCI is key to cotton transformation,” says Baigorri. “BCI is a multi-stakeholder organization that has focused on key components of the cotton supply chain–generating the supply of Better Cotton and also stimulating the demand for Better Cotton via its brand and retailer members.”

Increased demand is the obvious path toward mainstream acceptance. Major brands and retailers are key in communicating the benefit of Better Cotton to consumers and creating demand to procure from their suppliers cotton produced under the Better Cotton Standard.

“Brands and retailers work on creating supply chain links across the many intermediaries to procure the Better Cotton which has been produced using a system of claims units that can be exchanged between members,” says Baigorri. “At this moment, the ability to make claims about Better Cotton procurement directly to consumers is possible in-store and at a corporate level, although not on product labels.  As the project scales up, there is a focus to continuously develop the way brands and retailers communicate directly to consumers about Better Cotton.”

Going mainstream

By 2020, one-third of global cotton production will be Better Cotton. This is the ambitious goal of the BCI and given the “fast track” growth of the Better Cotton harvest in its first years of implementation–along with strong support from major brands like Levi’s, IKEA, Adidas and others–it is posed to achieve it.

But the list is long of great ideas limited by their inability to sufficiently scale and achieve real impact. The Better Cotton Initiative is not immune to these challenges especially those of funding expansion and matching demand with supply.

BCI measures the Gin Uptake Level (GUR), or the percentage of Better Cotton produced that is procured by ginners, at a relatively consistent 40 percent. The Retailer Uptake Level (RUR), or the amount of Better Cotton available at gins procured by retailers, fell from 35 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2012 A 2013 report written by strategy consultants Steward Redqueen, on behalf of the Sustainable Trade Initiative, warns that market demand for Better Cotton is not yet self-sustaining.

In response to these indicators BCI and IDH are planning a new business model based on charging retailers and brands a Volume Based Fee on their Better Cotton procurement. Fees collected support Better Cotton production and delivery. Continued work on a Better Cotton Demand Strategy seeks to further increase corporate participation and consumer awareness.

Better Cotton is king

And so the story of cotton continues to evolve. Could it be that as goes cotton, goes civilization? The implications of that question are best left to smarter people than I, but it is clear that the the Better Cotton Initiative serves as a framework for change.

Certainly the BCI is a work in progress, but it is work that, as Baigorri says, “is vital to the future of cotton.”

Solutions rarely emerge fully formed. Given the scale of the challenge and the initial success of BCI, King Cotton may very soon be replaced with Better Cotton.

Cotton field image: Flickr/mocheeks

Better Cotton Initiative logo courtesy of BCI


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  • Beth Anne Berman Seibel

    I sure could have used this article about a week ago when I was researching sustainability issues of the cotton, timber, and retail industries for my Sustainable Venture Plan Seminar class. Great article that I hope to make use of for future projects in this class.

    More importantly, we as consumers, must become more aware of what goes in to the products we use and do our part by making sustainable choices that are not always the cheapest choices.