More than 25 million tons of cotton are produced every year in around 85 countries, employing an estimated 250 million people. While cotton cultivation is crucial to many developing economies, it can also have a hefty impact on the environment.
About 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals used worldwide are processed by the cotton sector. While organic methods are slowly growing, organic cotton only makes up around 1 percent of the global cotton supply chain.
Of course, organic isn't the only name in the game. Spearheaded by the Better Cotton Initiative, Better Cotton is an easier standard for farmers to follow that still reduces impact on the environment. With Better Cotton, pesticides and insecticides are used, but the principle is “continued improvement.” In 2014, 7.6 percent of all cotton produced globally was Better Cotton, according to the Better Cotton Initiative’s 2014 sustainability report.
But some leading brands aren't waiting for access to organic and Better cotton to improve. They're switching their supply chains over to more sustainable sources now, while buoying efforts to increase access to sustainable raw materials. From organic fast-fashion to fair trade, these 10 brands are showing it's possible to do sustainable cotton right.
The company is one of the world's largest retailers of organic cotton apparel through its Bio Cotton range, launched in 2004. Bio Cotton now represents 40 percent of the company's cotton sales, and it sold a staggering 130 million certified organic products in 2014 -- adding up to 46,000 tons of organic cotton. Sustainable cotton now makes up nearly half (46 percent) of the company's cotton sales and 27 percent of its total product line.
C&A works with organizations like CottonConnect to establish more sustainable sources of non-organic cotton through initiatives such as Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) in India, China and Pakistan. In 2008, it decided to stop sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, following the uncovering of forced labor on cotton farms in the country.
The Adidas Group aims to source 100 percent of the cotton it uses -- across all product categories and in all its brands -- as ‘sustainable cotton’ by 2018.
"As it turned out, the move didn’t compromise quality," the company says on its website. "It provoked a fundamental change in our attitudes about agriculture. As part of our organic cotton program, hundreds of us took tours of cotton fields, and we saw for ourselves the dangers of pesticide use and the benefits of organic farming. Many of us have since shifted to buying organic foods and clothing."
H&M is one of the world's leading buyers of organic cotton. It is also an active member of the Better Cotton Initiative and an increasing user of recycled cotton, further adding to its kinder cotton portfolio. The fast-fashion giant's ultimate aim is to source 100 percent of its cotton from 'sustainable sources' -- either organic, Better Cotton or recycled -- by 2020.
TriplePundit's editor-in-chief, Jen Boynton, visited H&M's headquarters in Stockholm this year, and she was impressed by the company's efforts toward supply-chain transparency, as well as its expanding Conscious Cotton line.
To reduce the impact of cotton consumption, the company is working with the Better Cotton Initiative to train farmers to grow cotton using less water. Based on BCI harvest data, cotton farmers in China reduced their water use by 23 percent in 2013 compared with farmers who were not using BCI techniques. LS&Co. plans to continue working with its global suppliers with the goal of sourcing approximately 75 percent Better Cotton by 2020, up from 6 percent today.
Its story is also proof that slow, steady steps toward greater sustainability can make a big impact -- especially when you're talking about such high purchasing volumes. VF Corp. sourced 2,000 tons of sustainable cotton last year, which only amounts to 1 percent of its total cotton use but is still a pretty impressive start. Next year it's shooting for 6,000 tons.
The company is also a Better Cotton Initiative partner and is now funding a farm-level BCI project in Hebei, China. It has also pledged not to source Uzbek cotton, which has been linked to forced and child labor.
To create its men's and women's lines, the company works with over a dozen fair trade field-organizing teams and quality-control centers that coordinate more than 300 artisan work groups. All artisans are paid a living wage, and you can learn more about their stories on the company's website.
In addition to being fair to workers, all of Indigenous's products are made with sustainable materials. The company uses only certified organic cotton, as well as other natural and organic fibers.
All of PrAna's garment workers are paid a living wage, and it was one of the first major apparel companies to offer Fair Trade Certified products. On the raw materials side, the company uses exclusively organic cotton, as well as other sustainable fibers like hemp, recycled wool and polyester, and repurposed down.
Synergy uses only organic cotton, mostly from India, which makes up the majority of its product line. It also focuses on low-impact, low-toxicity dyes and making its clothing biodegradable at end-of-life.
The initiative is now active in top cotton-producing countries such as India, Pakistan, China, Brazil and Mozambique. IDH partners with nonprofits and supply-chain partners to work with producers on the farm level, and its tally of top brand partners includes Ikea, Marks & Spencer and several names from this list.
Image credits: 1) C&A 2) Jen Boynton
Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Mazzoni’s recent work can be found in Conscious Company, AlterNet and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia, PA.