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Report: Apparel Brands Warm to Sustainable Cotton, But There's More Work To Do

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
Sustainable Cotton

In the world of sustainable cotton procurement, the outlook for more responsible sourcing of this fiber is improving. The third global Cotton Ranking Report, led by the World Wildlife Fund, Pesticide Action Network U.K. and Solidaridad, assessed 77 companies for their cotton sourcing practices. They identified 11 companies as leaders in sustainable sourcing, which is more than doubled from just five in 2017. Adidas, Ikea and H&M topped the list. 

This latest ranking confirms the conclusions of other organizations, which have shown an increase in the procurement of more responsible cotton over the past decade.

Higher scores, yet improvement still needed

The ranking shows that most companies with some commitment to more sustainable cotton are progressing on a range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges. There is improvement across the board on policy, traceability and uptake. More companies are increasing their consumption of sustainable cotton, and responsible cotton sourcing has become a more important part of the apparel industry’s supply chain overall, the organizations found. A total of 43 companies obtained higher scores than in 2017, including 24 moving up from one performance category to the next, among them Walmart and Target.

Despite all of the progress, there is more work to do, the report concludes. Existing progress is driven mainly by companies that were already engaged to some extent in 2017. The brands that received low scores in 2017 have remained inactive on sustainable cotton sourcing for the most part. A third of all the assessed companies — including Amazon and Foot Locker — have no policy on cotton sustainability at all, while more than half of all assessed companies have not disclosed any public target for sourcing more sustainable cotton.

Why sustainable cotton rankings are critical to the apparel sector

Cotton is the most widespread non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for over 250 million people and employs nearly 7 percent of all labor in developing countries. About half of all textiles are made from cotton.

But conventional cotton poses numerous environmental challenges. While cotton fields make up just 3 percent of the world’s cultivated land, they account for 24 percent of global insecticide use. These insecticides often end up in groundwater and rivers, with the result that these chemicals eliminate not only pests, but also the natural enemies of pests, which interferes with ecosystems.

Cotton is also a water-intensive crop: Estimates vary, but the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) estimates that it takes 10,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton fabric.

Furthermore, producing the synthetic fertilizers used in cotton farming accounts for about 1.5 percent of the world’s annual energy consumption. Continuing to apply nitrates on farmland produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 300 times that of carbon dioxide. Additionally, soils sequester carbon, and when the soil is degraded, one result is that more carbon ends up in the earth’s atmosphere.

The social impact resulting from producing more sustainable cotton

Conventional cotton also produces socio-economic challenges. Poor working conditions are all too common, along with child labor and forced labor. Using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has led some critics to say that the results lead to farmers racking up high amounts of debt.

The organizations backing the Cotton Ranking Report hope to accelerate the demand and uptake of sustainable cotton among clothing and home-textile retailing companies. The good news is that sustainable cotton increased to 21 percent of global production during the 2017-2018 season, up from 12 percent in the 2015-2016 season.

Change has been incremental, but considering how much cotton is produced worldwide, this outcome matters: The amount of sustainable cotton sourced by brands and retailers increased from 21 percent of the available supply in 2016 to 25 percent in 2018. That uptick may seem small, but the resulting volume makes a huge difference for cotton producing communities worldwide, who can earn a higher price for sustainable fibers. Yet that still leaves a full 75 percent of more sustainable cotton being sold as conventional cotton in the marketplace due to lack of demand.  

Still, increasing the production of sustainable cotton can dramatically decrease the impact of the apparel sector by addressing the environmental and socio-economic challenges of conventional cotton farming. Reducing the water used in irrigation helps water-scarce regions avoid shortages for basic human needs. Eliminating or lessening the use of pesticides reduces the chemicals in drinking water sources and makes cotton farms safer places to work. Soil health improves when alternatives to synthetic fertilizers are used. Higher incomes for cotton farmers and their workers can help reduce poverty.

Or as CottonUp, a guide to sourcing sustainable cotton, states, “By sourcing sustainable cotton, businesses can help dramatically reduce some of the negative environmental impacts of the apparel sector and create positive benefits for millions of farmers and communities.”

Image credit: Fred Moreno/Unsplash

 

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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