The NGO Solidaridad, in partnership with organizations including WWF and United Kingdom-based Pesticide Action Network, today released its annual sustainable cotton rankings. The survey's researchers considered initiatives that are transforming the apparel industry, such as the Better Cotton Initiative and fair trade certification programs, and also evaluated various companies' policies, sourcing and traceability.
Overall, the report is a warning to the global apparel sector that it still has a long road ahead until it can claim it is environmentally and socially sustainable. But the report also offers some surprises and provides hope that the fast fashion industry can mitigate concerns that its rapid growth will come at too high of a cost to the planet and human rights.
Within this report's 10 highest-ranking companies, some of these firms have long developed a reputation of being the more responsible within the industry. Marks and Spencer (ranked fourth), Adidas, Nike and Levi's were amongst the leaders. But Ikea scored the highest ranking by far, and was followed by fast fashion giants Tchibo, C&A and H&M (ranked fifth).
Many well-known apparel companies, however, scored very low, usually because their stated policies were not backed up with verified information about their supply chains or traceability standards. The children's clothier Carter's, lululemon and J.C. Penny were the lowest-ranking companies from the point of view of this survey's researchers. But many companies did not reply to the NGO's questionnaire at all, and that roster includes Amazon, Nordstrom and Walmart.
The numbers alone ought to motivate companies to leverage their buying power in order to improve the cotton industry's overall sustainability performance as well as reduce risk within their supply chains. Washington, D.C.-based International Cotton Advisory Committee, a global trade group, has estimated that up to 36 million hectares (140,000 square miles, or slightly less than the size of Montana) is dedicated to the cultivation of cotton. Solidaridad claims cotton production worldwide consumes 6 percent of all pesticides and 14 percent of insecticide sold - not to mention that as much as three-quarters of world's supply of this commodity relies on irrigation. Millions of farmers, the vast majority of which are smallholders, are dependent on raising cotton as their sole source of income - exposing them to climate change risks and human rights violations.
The good news is that the total amount of sustainable cotton sourced by brands and retailers increased from 17 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2016, indicating that the entire industry at large is slowly changing its ways. But certification and traceability still impose huge challenges, meaning many farmers could be losing out on revenues that could make a difference in their lives. "Up to 80 percent of more sustainably produced cotton was sold as conventional, without any recognition," explained a Solidaridad representative in an email to TriplePundit.
Solidaridad and its partners suggest several recommendations in order to increase the amount of sustainable cotton in the industry's global supply chain. First, cotton sourcing policies need far more rigor while companies communicate to stakeholders their approach to problems such as water consumption, biodiversity, human rights and recycling. The report also challenges companies to adopt an aggressive target of 100 percent sustainable cotton within their supply chains by 2020. Finally, transparency is key, as Solidaridad insists companies should report annually on their policies, sourcing strategies and progress as they shift to recycled, organic or more responsibly-grown cotton.
Image credit: WWF/Asim Hafeez
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.