The Better Cotton Initiative, the world’s largest sustainable cotton program, has today announced targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030 from a 2017 baseline. This announcement is a step toward assisting an industry plagued by environmental and social problems; the Initiative also highlights the need to create new approaches for less polluting agricultural practices in order to mitigate climate change risks.
Global cotton production accounts for 220 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, and cotton production requires a lot of inputs. For example, its global water footprint is approximately 8.2 trillion cubic feet a year, or the equivalent of 238 bathtubs of water per person globally. And, 16 percent of global insecticide use is for cotton production, more than any other crop.
On that point, the Better Cotton Initiative said it has continued to make progress in mitigating its environmental and social impacts. According to a new report by the organization, “Better Cotton production had a 19 percent lower emissions intensity per [metric ton] lint than comparison production across China, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkey.”
However, making significant progress on reducing carbon emissions requires widespread and calculated action, which Better Cotton says it has demonstrated. Along with its partners, the organization has trained 2.5 million farmers in 25 countries on more sustainable cotton production, and nearly one-quarter of the world’s cotton is cultivated under Better Cotton standards.
“Beyond the organization, Better Cotton is a unique global platform that strives to do something that has never been done before, and that is to bring some collective continuity to the conversation around ‘cotton,’ said Marc Lewkowitz, the president and CEO of Supima in a public statement. “As the world’s largest natural fiber crop, ‘cotton’ exists in a very diverse landscape.”
Better Cotton has achieved some impressive results, according to its data. During the 2019-2020 growing season, farmers working with Better Cotton in India consumed 10 percent less water; 13 percent less synthetic fertilizer; 23 percent less pesticides; and used 7 percent more organic fertilizer when compared to farmers not affiliated with the Initiative.
At the same time, Better Cotton concluded that farmers who participated in its programs gained yields that were 9 percent higher, and profits that were 18 percent higher. Hence the social benefits to farmers and their communities are undeniable, starting with higher incomes and improved working conditions. Globally, 250 million people generate income from cotton production, with many of them farming in low-income countries.
“With Better Cotton’s new 2030 Strategy, there is an ambitious initiative to drive and steward demonstrable continuous improvement that is both responsive to our global challenges as well as supportive of the growers and their communities,” added Lewkowitz. “Data and metrics will drive insight and impact and provide beneficial feedback to the growers on the positive outcomes to enhance their engagement and commitment to sustainable and responsive practices.”
What’s notable about Better Cotton’s targets is that as it seeks to achieve these goals within a relatively short timeframe, the organization will need take action right away. Furthermore, cotton farmers, and the textile industry as a whole, are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to drought and extreme weather. Certainly, the industry has a lot to gain from a more stable climate.
Better Cotton isn’t taking any time off to rest after today’s announcement. By the end of 2022, it plans to announce four additional targets related to soil health, pesticide use, smallholder farmers' livelihoods and women’s empowerment.
Image credit: Jeff Hutcheson via Unsplash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.