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Sustainable Cotton Has a Demand Problem


By Richard Holland

International clothing brands and retailers have a crucial role to play in securing the future of the market for more sustainable cotton.

Various types of sustainable cotton production -- ‘organic,' ‘Better Cotton’ and ‘fair trade’ -- have grown enormously over the last five years and now make up over 10 percent of total global supply. As a result, buying more sustainable cotton has never been easier.

And leading companies such as Ikea and H&M are showing it's possible to use 100 percent more sustainable cotton in all their products. Ikea reached this milestone in 2015, and H&M should do so within a couple of years.

Arguably, the growth in supply of more sustainable cotton is largely down to the success of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Its journey began 11 years ago when a group of retailers including Ikea, H&M, Levi’s and Marks & Spencer got together with WWF, Pesticide Action Network U.K. and Solidaridad to explore how cotton might be produced with less impact on people and nature, and with farmers making a decent living from growing the crop. From those early discussions, in 2009 a system designed to produce an improved 'mainstream’ commodity, that complements organic and fair trade cotton, emerged in the shape of Better Cotton.

This is extremely significant. Cotton provides a living for about 100 million families, the vast majority of whom live in developing or emerging economy countries. And conventional cotton production uses high levels of pesticide, fertilizer and water with knock-on environmental effects. Cotton is also a crop troubled by unsafe pesticide application and poor working conditions for the millions of women who do most of the planting and picking of cotton. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2014 that child labor or forced labor still existed in the cotton production process in 18 countries, including five of the top six producer nations (China, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan).

All of these things mean that any system that can improve the sustainability of cotton production can have significant benefits for people and planet.

A number of sustainable cotton standards have been developed in the last 30 years, starting with certified organic cotton in the 1980s, followed by fair trade in 2004, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) in 2005 and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2009. All of them provide guidance and support for farmers and reassure consumers and retailers that the products they buy are being produced using sustainable farming methods.

However, we are at something of a crossroads. Despite these various types of sustainable cotton now making up around 10 percent of global supply, there is a gap between supply and uptake. Presently, a significant amount of ‘more sustainable’ cotton ends up on the conventional market and is not sold as sustainable.

New research to be released by WWF, Pesticide Action Network U.K. and Solidaridad in April will reveal the extent of this gap and highlight some of the factors behind it.

While several companies have made commitments to source 100 percent more sustainable cotton, what seems clear is that if greater demand is not reflected in increased orders from retailers, there is a danger that farmers will abandon sustainable practices and the opportunity to improve global cotton production will be missed.

Pakistan is not well known for leadership on sustainability issues. Despite this, much of the initial innovation and momentum for Better Cotton came from support provided by its textile companies, trade associations, governmental farmer support programs and NGOs including WWF-Pakistan. Indeed, through Better Cotton projects funded by Ikea and WWF, it was possible to demonstrate early on in Pakistan that the changes in farm practices required for the reduction of environmental and social impacts could also deliver increased income for farmers of 20 to 35 percent on average. As a consequence, whole families and communities benefit, and children once obliged to work in the cotton fields can go to school.

Although the success of the BCI is owed to countless people around the globe, including leading NGOs such as Solidaridad and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN-UK), and WWF partners M&S, H&M and IDH - the Sustainable Trade Initiative, one company stands out: Ikea.

Ikea showed unselfish leadership by investing substantially in training farmers in Pakistan and India and then inviting other companies to join them in buying Better Cotton. This commitment helped build the business case for Better Cotton while lowering the barrier of entry for others. Ikea has now reached its target of buying 100 percent of the cotton it needs from more sustainable sources. Sustaining Ikea’s vision over the long-term as the company looks beyond this target is a solid business case for change founded on ensuring security of supply, reducing business risk, increasing productivity and strengthening brand reputation.

Nevertheless, the sustainable cotton journey is far from over. Although Better Cotton accounts for about 10 percent of production today, BCI’s ambition is to reach 30 percent by 2020, benefitting some 5 million farmers worldwide and making Better Cotton a mainstream reality. We need more companies to follow Ikea’s lead.

Isn’t it time we all asked our favorite brand when 100 percent of its cotton products will come from more sustainable sources?

Click here to find out more about WWF’s market transformation work.

Image credit: Flickr/Gene Bowker 

Richard Holland is Director of WWF's Market Transformation Initiative.

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