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Leon Kaye headshot

H&M, The World’s Largest Organic Cotton User: Better Enough?

By Leon Kaye

Its clothes are still largely manufactured under dubious conditions in Bangladesh, and many critics doubt the company’s commitment to sustainable apparel, but H&M can claim again one top ranking: the world’s largest procurer of organic cotton. When considering the company’s massive impact across the globe, however, the reaction of many will only be yawns. And with the amount of land worldwide devoted to producing materials for the textile and fashion industry, will a growing sliver of this total now certified “organic” really make a difference for people and the environment?

According to the Textile Exchange’s most recent Organic Cotton Market Report 2013, H&M has reemerged as No. 1 in its annual business rankings of worldwide organic cotton buyers. H&M had topped the list in 2010 and 2011, only to fall to second in 2012. The increased proportion of organic cotton H&M had sourced was largely the result of this jump — according to the company, the share of cotton coming from organic sources rose from 7.8 percent in 2012 to 10.8 percent last year. But with the decade about halfway finished, it is doubtful H&M can meet one of its most important sustainability goals.

The spike in organic cotton notwithstanding, H&M still has a long ways to go before it can come close to having all of its cotton coming from “sustainable sources” by 2020. Like other apparel companies in its sector, H&M excels at outlining goals and statistics: yes, it takes 8,500 liters of water to create a pair of jeans; it is an active member of the Better Cotton Initiative; and has worked with 220,000 farmers to provide them the tools and knowledge necessary to grow better cotton. Those goals, however, often face the daunting reality: For example, when it comes to training those farmers, H&M aims to have 1 million farmers trained by next year — a tough task ahead for the company if it is not going to disappoint its stakeholders. Organic cotton production will not be enough to help the company reach its goals — nor will recycling. “Better” cotton, therefore, will be the key for H&M to meet those sustainability goals.

When it comes to where all of this organic cotton is coming from, it is eye-opening to see which countries play a large part in clothing the world — as in who supplies the massive companies such as H&M. India and China, of course, lead the pack, but emerging economies ranging from Turkey to Mali are also in the top 10; and all of these companies are places in which the Better Cotton Initiative is leading projects. But in an era where more consumers equate “organic” with ethics and quality (fair or not), the challenge for H&M and its peers is to convince shoppers that “Better Cotton” is good enough. Consumer acceptance would certainly help farmers in those countries make a decent living while mitigating their impact on the environment but do not have the resources to cultivate organic cotton.

Whether the scale of organic cotton will truly make a difference is decided when one reviews the top 10 companies on the list. Considering the ongoing food versus fuel, feed and fiber debate, it is worrying when you see the companies focused on fast fashion making the list along with H&M: C&A, Tchibo, Decathlon, Target and Inditex. And it is also telling the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, did not make that list at all. H&M and its peers can tout these impressive-sounding metrics all they want; whether this is really true progress, however, is open to debate.

Image credit: USDA

Leon Kaye has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past year and is on his way back to California. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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