Cotton has long been one of the world’s most valuable commodities. It's one of the 10 largest agricultural products worldwide, and the farming of cotton is a $23 billion global business. The 105.5 million bales (or 1.8 billion cubic feet) of cotton expected to be harvested this year employs millions of farmers across the world, supporting families from the U.S. to Africa and across India and Pakistan.
The industry says cotton is the fabric of our lives, but a variety of factors -- from climate change to abusive governments -- are tearing the fabric of the lives who toil to grow, process and eventually weave this crop. In an era where we're inundated with constant messaging, it is up to brands to relay the story of their cotton — and in the case of bad stories, strive to end them.
Cotton has a massive environmental impact across the world. The crop has a huge water footprint: WWF estimates that about 1,380 gallons of water is required to produce a pound of cotton. It takes about 2.2 pounds (or one kilo) to produce a pair of jeans. Even if that figure is exaggerated, nearly 75 percent of all cotton is grown on irrigated land around the world, from California's San Joaquin Valley, to the Nile River basin to Gujarat State in India. Add the amount of pesticides often used in the cultivation of cotton (20 to 25 percent of the world’s agricultural chemicals, depending on the source), and the year-to-year increase in the demand for cotton is not sustainable. Figure in the human rights violations related to cotton production that are ongoing on some countries, with Uzbekistan being one of the worst offenders, and this is one crop that foments many environmental and social crises.
But cotton is also the livelihood for an estimated 250 million people — saying no to cotton is hardly the solution. Saying yes to more responsible cotton, however, can help mitigate this crop’s impact on people and the environment -- and even improve living standards worldwide.
More brands have become aware of the challenges cotton poses to the planet and to the long-term prospects within their supply chains. H&M, a company often derided for the world’s growing obsession with fast fashion, says it will source all of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2020. Levi Strauss has long strived to reduce its water footprint and experimented with using recycled fibers within its product lines of denim jeans. The sports apparel giant Adidas is also working closer with its suppliers to ensure that its cotton comes from responsible companies.
This shift toward ensuring that sustainable cotton becomes the rule, not the exception, is largely due to the work of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Just as there are widely accepted standards for corporate reporting, palm oil production and organic certification, a widely accepted standard for cotton cultivation and production -- from farm to mill to store shelves -- has emerged. BCI has been developing such guidelines for over a decade and, most importantly, has developed a system of traceability so companies can be confident in the fact that their cotton is produced ethically and responsibly.
To learn what the textile and apparel industries can do to ensure cotton’s long-term sustainability, and these companies’ viability, TriplePundit interviewed Ruchira Joshi, one of BCI’s program directors, who spoke with us from her office in London.
In the apparel industry, traceability is the catchword. Ms. Joshi, whose career path has taken her on a journey with NGOs and the auditor PwC while working with commodities including cocoa, sugar and now cotton, explained why traceability is so critical to cotton suppliers, brands and consumers.
“Understanding where your ‘stuff’ comes from is the first step in changing the way in which these garments are produced,” Ms. Joshi said as we started our conversation. “That’s what traceability is about—the jeans, towels and bed sheets we use are linked somewhere to a farming family that had to work a piece of land to grow the cotton required for those goods.”
In other words, knowing the origin of our products can help arm consumers with the knowledge necessary to make the best informed purchasing decision.
Traceability is crucial, Ms. Joshi said, as it is that important nugget of information that can help us as consumers change our behavior for the better. Just as more consumers would avoid a restaurant that serves notoriously-overfished seafood or chicken injected with hormones, if we know that cotton shirt was made by children who were expelled from school to pick cotton during harvest season, or chemicals that pollute drinking water, we would be less inclined to select that garment -- and vice-versa.
The change BCI enacted has been impressive, and in fact, it has been exponential when one looks at the raw numbers. From 28,000 farmers growing 35,000 megatons of cotton in 2010, BCI’s impact surged to over 1.2 million farmers producing 2.3 million megatons, according to its 2014 annual report. That figure should continue to increase, and BCI is so confident that it is documenting the 2015 harvest live as the numbers come in. As far as documentation, BCI’s reach has also widened, as it documents production from farm to cotton gin, to mills, spinners and retailers.
This growth, Ms. Joshi said, is because of BCI’s measured approach to stakeholder outreach across the entire cotton apparel supply chain. And rather than lecture consumers, BCI’s staff devotes its energy to working with companies, including the likes of Adidas, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, H&M and C&A.
This is not about reaching out to the “green” shopper — BCI has taken the long view, works on the world’s largest textile companies, and is therefore making sustainable cotton mainstream. “If we think about all the levers we can pull, we thought about what’s the biggest one, which one we could pull with biggest impact,” Ms. Joshi recalled. “Better cotton shouldn’t be about only green consumers -- it should be about anyone, even if they don’t care about cotton’s impact. Our goal is for all consumers to pick up any product and be confident.”
And even if a consumer absolutely does not care about sustainable cotton, BCI works to bypass the consumer by working directly with companies. And its directives are not just for consumers in the West. “In markets like India and Korea, the majority of consumers are not green consumers,” Ms. Joshi explained. “The best way to get them is to convince the company, not the consumer, about better cotton, and then set ambitious targets. Then the consumer doesn’t have the choice, but ultimately everyone will have access to a better cotton product.”
It’s important to remember that this “better” cotton is eventually blended with conventional cotton to make the clothes for some of the world’s most prolific brands. There is no 'Better Cotton' label on the shirt you’re buying. Instead of going after the consumers seeking a special label of approval, BCI skips all of them entirely. “I would not spend time and effort trying to convince a consumer what’s in it for him or her,” Ms. Joshi insisted. “I’d tell consumers, 'If you don’t want to change your shopping habits, shop at these companies because they use BCI cotton.'”
It sure would not hurt, however, if BCI’s partners shared some of the organization's success stories. BCI has done a fine job archiving the difference it has made in some of the world’s largest cotton markets, including Brazil, China and India.
In one cotton-growing region of India, BCI worked with local partners to increase school attendance. For years, the norm was for children to help their parents in the cotton fields, with the result that classrooms were almost empty during harvest season. An education program launched that included plays and debates focusing on the negative impacts of child labor. The upshot was to impart upon parents the importance of having kids in schools, not in fields, in order to build a better long-term future for these families.
That is just one of dozens of stories brands can leverage to educate their consumers about the advantages of buying better cotton — a choice, in fact, that was already made for them.
Image credit: Better Cotton Initiative
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.