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Leon Kaye headshot

Gap Will Source 100 Percent Sustainable Cotton By 2021

By Leon Kaye

Gap, Inc. recently announced that it will source 100 percent of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2021 for some of its clothing. The company, which generated almost $16 billion during its last fiscal year, says it is aiming this goal is specifically for its clothes sold under its flagship Gap brand.

Critical for that procurement goal is the sourcing of more better cotton, as certified specifically by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

Gap claims to have already sourced 11.5 million pounds of better cotton since 2016, which it says is enough to manufacture 7.4 million pairs of jeans. When asked what percentage of its current cotton supply is comprised of better cotton, Gap replied that it does not publicly reveal those numbers. In fairness, Gap faces a problem many fashion brands confront: They do not own their means of production and have little control over their suppliers.

In an interview with TriplePundit, Gap said that it is also agnostic about what types of “sustainable” cotton it will purchase over the next four years. While an increase in BCI-certified cotton is critical to the company’s mission, Gap claims it will also increase its purchase of organic, American-grown and recycled cotton.

“We consider our approach to be a portfolio approach,” said Melissa Fifield, senior director of sustainable innovation at Gap. “This goal will require additional innovation and further developments in current technologies.”

Gap’s directive on sustainable sourcing is similar to other garment companies that are trying to minimize their supply chains’ social and environmental impacts. For example, last year Timberland pledged to source all of its cotton from either BCI growers, organic cotton farms or American cotton farms by 2020. H&M has established similar goals. Other firms, such as Marks & Spencer, have yet to commit to a 100 percent figure – M&S has established a 70 percent goal for 2020.

BCI-certified cotton has become the leading sustainable sourcing standard for the global apparel industry. And BCI says its membership, as well as the volume of cotton its farmers produce, continues to increase.

The procurement of more BCI-certified cotton is not a problem for Gap, Fifield told us, but she said the company does not want to put all of its eggs in one basket.

Other apparel companies, such as Adidas, have disclosed specific goals for BCI cotton in the past – and have been quick to announce the results if they surpass those metrics. Gap, however, will not commit to a specific amount of sustainable cotton from any one source.

What's important about Gap's commitment, however, is that it sends a signal to companies throughout the entire garment industry's supply chain. If Gap and its competitors are serious about boosting their purchase of sustainable cotton, everyone from the farmer to the textile mill know that a market for these fibers will develop -- and, over the next few years, the costs of the materials will continue to decline.

One could say that Gap is pursuing an all-of-the-above approach, as the company does not have much time to revamp its supply chain in order to stock its approximate 3,700 retail locations worldwide, 2,400 of which are located in the U.S. When asked about textile innovation, and whether Gap is conducting research internally or would work with smaller companies, Fifield said: “All of the above. When I think of 'innovation,’ it relates to the internal team that I leave, new partnerships and new relationships with potential suppliers.”

Could cotton recycling help Gap meet its goals? While more clothing companies, such as M&S, Levi’s and H&M, are incentivizing their customers to recycle unwanted clothing items, evidence suggests that the vast majority of textiles still end up in landfills. And with the surging popularity of fast-fashion retailers, that volume of materials only keeps increasing.

And although Fifield said Gap will not commit to a specific amount of recycled fibers, the San Francisco-based company is hearing the messages from stakeholders loud and clear. “The recycling of fibers is a challenge, but it’s still important for us to put a stake in the ground,” she said. “And we are determined to be even more ambitious as we’d like to see more cotton recycling happen.”

For Gap, more responsible cotton is not just about checking a box in meeting its sustainability goals, which also include water conservation, women’s empowerment, and a reduction in energy consumption and waste. The company also has to keep customers happy. Increased competition, not to mention the growing popularity of online shopping, imposes plenty of pressure on Gap, which has endured more than its fair share of ups and downs during its half-century of history.

Creating products made of recycled or more sustainable cotton will not do the company much good if customers are not thrilled with product quality – and the farmers growing this cotton will not benefit in the long term, either.

“Much of this is related to things we’re hearing from our customers, as in how they want these garments to perform for them,” Fifield told us. “And bottom line, we view this innovation as, how do we solve the problems of our customers, and how do we ensure that we are delivering products not only better for the planet, but also, for those who are buying our clothes?”

Image credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr

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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