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More Brands Are Choosing Better Cotton

By Nithin Coca

According to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), 2017 was a banner year for sustainable cotton, and this multi-stakeholder group is well on its way to achieve its goal of having 30 percent of all cotton grown globally being grown responsibly and sustainably.

The numbers are impressive – 736,000 metric tonnes of cotton was sourced under BCI’s standards, with several large global corporations playing a key role, including Ikea, Adidas, Gap, Nike and C&A all coming in the top 10 of BCI’s ranking for cotton sourcing.

“BCI Members continue to demonstrate industry leadership to support us on this journey,” said Amy Jackson, BCI’s Director of Membership, during an interview with TriplePundit. “We are truly a collective effort, driving the cotton sector towards sustainability.”

Increasing the supply of sustainable cotton is important as there are several problems with conventionally growth cotton. First, there’s water – cotton has a reputation for being “difficult,” water-wise. Numerous non-profits and global media outlets such as The Guardian have laid blame on it for dwindling water resources in places like India, or for the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea. Then there’s the fact that cotton uses high levels of pesticides, which are connected to water pollution issues in regions like the southern United States.

At the same time, there are few viable alternatives. Its main competitors – synthetics such as polyester, plant-based rayon, or leather – are rife with sustainability challenges as well. Considering the growing concern about polyester based microfibers in the ocean, some are, arguably, worse. None of these alternatives can replace the scale of cotton, which still accounts for 40% of all raw material used in textile production globally. Quite simply stated, cotton is an essential part of the global economy, and that is not changing anytime soon. And, as a product, it has numerous advantages. It is durable, recyclable, and provides livelihoods to millions.

So what is the best path forward? Make cotton better, by increasing the use of environmentally friendly practices across its supply chain that reduce water and pesticide use. That is what BCI aims to do. They define “Better Cotton” as cotton grown following seven principles. These include environmental factors – crop protection, water stewardship, soil health, land, and biodiversity, but also, importantly, social factors too, including decent work and management. The ultimate goal, according to BCI, is to allow farmers to produce cotton that measurably better for the environment and farming communities.

“We’re working towards our aim to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity,” said Jackson. “We are truly a collective effort, driving the cotton sector towards sustainability.”

Unlike other initiatives, which sometimes focus solely on the consumer end, BCI also understands that increasingly the capacity of farmers to produce Better Cotton is as important as getting brands on board. That is why one of their keys programs is to build capacity with farmers through training and partnerships at the field level.

While their achievement – 15 percent – is commendable, hitting 30 percent in just two years will require more brands and even greater engagement with farmers to ensure there is both adequate supply and demand. BCI plans to train 5 million farmers worldwide on more sustainable agricultural practices, and hope to hit 1 million tonnes in 2019. All this effort is noteworthy and is an important milestone on the long path towards a more sustainable global textile and clothing industry.

One thing that could make this impact even greater for the long term: if we could develop a better system for recycling or reusing cotton to ensure it stays in the economy even longer, shifting a linear supply chain into one that is more circular. In fact, this is something researchers are working on around the world. More sustainable cotton is a big step forward, and it’s time for the entire cotton supply chain to embrace circularity and sustainability.

Image credit: Kimberly Vardeman/Flickr

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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