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.
C&A, a chain of European department stores headquartered in Vilvoorde, Belgium, has been making strides in sustainable cotton sourcing for over a decade.
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.
Adidas sourced 43 percent of its cotton as Better Cotton last year, exceeding its goal of 40 percent, the company announced last month. The athletic-wear manufacturer is a pioneer member of the Better Cotton Initiative, and Frank Henke, VP of social and environmental affairs, said it's "exciting to see how Better Cotton is becoming a sustainable mainstream commodity."
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.
It likely won't shock you that sustainability darling Patagonia is doing big things in low-impact cotton, but even we were a bit surprised by how far its commitments go back: The outdoor company began the exclusive use of organically-grown cotton in all of its products in 1996.
"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.
Levi Strauss made waves in 2007 when it conducted the apparel industry’s first lifecycle assessment (LCA) study to assess the full environmental impact of a core set of products from cradle to grave. The study found that the greatest water and energy impact happened in two areas: cotton cultivation and consumer use. Nearly 3,800 liters of water is used throughout the lifetime of a pair of jeans, 68 percent of which is used for cotton cultivation.
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.
VF Corp. is likely one of the biggest apparel firms you've never heard of. It's the parent company behind popular brands like the North Face, Nautica and Timberland, and it has a fittingly enormous supply chain. The apparel behemoth annually purchases about 1 percent of the world’s cotton, which requires land roughly 32 times the size of Manhattan Island, to fill its orders.
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.
Across its business operations, fair trade fashion brand Indigenous expertly balances environmental responsibility and worker empowerment.
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.
Another fair trade label, PrAna claims it can trace every product in its portfolio from the farm level through manufacturing. "While that seems like a lot of work, we think it is pretty important to make sure that what we sell our customers is in fact what we claim it to be," the company says on its website.
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.
Inspired by a trip to Nepal and India, Synergy offers a range of stylish womenswear that's kind to both people and the environment. Its entire line is handmade in Nepal according to fair trade practices, and the company is also committed to sustainable materials sourcing.
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.
Sustainable trade initiative IDH is out to improve access to Better Cotton worldwide. In 2009, a group of private and public players, including IDH, developed a strategy to speed up the implementation of the Better Cotton System. This demand-driven strategy is based on the commitment of frontrunner brands and retailers to invest both in farmer-support programs and in the procurement of mainstream volumes of Better Cotton.
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 credit: C&A
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.