From the Better Cotton Initiative to CottonConnect and organic, there are seven different schemes to cut the environmental and social impacts of the water-intensive textile. Forum for the Future's Cotton 2040 initiative aims to provide clear guidance for brands. Angeli Mehta reports

With one kilogramme of cotton – roughly the equivalent of a T-shirt and pair of jeans – using 2,000 litres of water to produce, brands are increasingly seeing the importance of sourcing cotton that uses less water, as well as fewer pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

But there is heated debate over what constitutes “sustainable” cotton, with seven different growing programmes, including organic and Fairtrade, in operation across the world’s cotton-growing regions, according to Textile Exchange, a US non-profit that works globally to improve industry standards in sourcing textiles such as cotton.

In a report last month, Changing Markets Foundation said the rapid growth of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the world’s largest sustainable cotton scheme, is driving down sustainability standards and undermining the market for the most environmentally friendly option, organic, which uses 92% less water than conventional cotton, and no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers.

Smallholder farmers often live right on the margins of poverty. The focus is on getting their profits up

BCI farmers grew 3.3m tonnes of cotton in 2016-17 – some 14% of global production – up from 2.6m tonnes the previous year. Organic production amounted to a mere 108,000 tonnes in 2015-16, and has been in decline, though volumes are expected to increase again, with conversion projects under way.

One of the leaders in sourcing sustainable cotton is Marks and Spencer: earlier this month it announced that over three-quarters of the 50,000 tonnes of cotton it buys each year is now grown sustainably, so it’s well on track to meet its goal of 100% sustainable sourcing by April 2019.

Most of M&S’s cotton is certified by the Better Cotton Initiative. As well as focusing on water efficiency, pesticide use and soil health, BCI is striving to improve conditions for farmers, 90% of whom are smallholders.

What constitutes 'sustainable' cotton is open to debate. (Credit: Mike Carberry/Cotton Australia)

Although only a small fraction of M&S’s cotton is organic or Fair Trade, a company spokesman said: “The point was to scale quickly – to make a big impact on water and pesticides.” But it does have a target to increase the proportion of Fairtrade, organic and recycled sources of cotton to 25%, by 2025.

Another big user of BCI-certified cotton is French sporting goods and clothing group Decathlon, which sources 51% of its cotton through BCI. By 2020, it wants to exclude conventional cotton, according to Nagy Bensid, yarns and fibres director. But Bensid confirms that the proportion of organic cotton that Decathlon uses has gone down, from 21% five years ago to 4% today, but blames the lack of availability of organic cotton.

Lena Staafgard, BCI’s chief operating officer, says BCI does support the aims of organic production, and maintains that there is plenty of room for both standards to grow. However, she stresses that BCI’s main focus is smallholder farmers. “They are people who often live right on the margins of poverty. The focus is on getting their profits up. They will be able to make more strategic decisions if they’re not struggling the whole time.”

If we work only with farmers, there won’t be long-term change. We need bold steps and bold investments

BCI reports each year on how its farmers compare with those in the same areas growing cotton conventionally. In 2015-16, BCI farmers in India used 20% less pesticides, 20% less water, and 20% less synthetic fertilizer. At the same time their yields were 9% higher, and profits grew by 23% thanks to lower input costs, through using less pesticides, for example. Staafgard disputes suggestions by Changing Markets that BCI doesn’t drive continuous improvement, but at the moment each year can only be judged in isolation. BCI is working on a methodology to present data from the same farmer, year on year, but “want[s] to be very careful about communicating impact that’s not credible”.

One of the biggest issues for organic farming of cotton is the availability of seed that is not genetically modified. In India, where most organic cotton is grown, more than 95% of seed is GM.

Anita Chester, head of sustainable raw materials at the C&A Foundation, says: “There is a perception that brands have stepped out [of organic cotton].” But, she says, there is not enough organic cotton to meet demand. “On the supply side, there are so many challenges and the supply chain is very non-transparent.”

An audit of an organic cotton factory in India. (Credit: Didier Gentilhomme/Fairtrade International)

She bemoans the harm done by large multinational seed companies. “They brainwash the scientific community that their seed is the way forward, so research on indigenous seeds is ignored.”

Chester is trying to encourage universities to work on new varieties of cotton, but it takes years to develop those new cultivars. In the meantime, the growing resistance to pests such as the pink bollworm, and an alarming rise of secondary pests, mean that there has actually been an increase of pesticide use, together with the cost of using them.

To address the challenge, the C&A Foundation, together with fashion brands C&A, Eileen Fisher, Inditex and others, are investing in the cross-industry Organic Cotton Accelerator. One of its areas of action is the setting up of a pre-competitive cotton-breeding programme in India, to develop the new varieties of cotton urgently needed.

In Tanzania and India, there are a large number of farmers who are more or less organic by default

“If we work only with farmers, there won’t be long-term change. We need to bring the market to the farmers. We need bold steps and bold investments,” says Chester.

C&A Foundation supports some 45,000 organic farmers across India, Pakistan, China, Tanzania and Brazil, who they’ve trained on organic principles and helped to get certified. Chester wants others to step in alongside to expand the programme.

There’s been a lot of debate about whether organic farming of cotton can produce the yields of conventional production. Chester acknowledges that “in pockets of India which are well-irrigated, and farmers more affluent, organic is not always the preferred system”. Organic works best with small and marginal farmers, she suggests.

The fibres for Primark's sustainable cotton pyjamas are grown by farmers in Gujarat. (Credit: Primark)

“In Tanzania and India, there are a large number of farmers who are more or less organic by default because they can’t afford expensive inputs.”

Another challenge is that it’s not until the fourth or fifth year that organically grown cotton yields will start matching their conventional peers. Usually these areas are rain-fed, therefore a lot of work has to be done to build up soil health so it can retain water. But evidence from farmers Chester has worked with shows that they are better off, through lower input costs, even before parity is reached.

Chester has no beef with non-organic efforts: “If farmers can’t get non-GM seed, then at least they should be able to learn about other issues in sustainability and safe handling of pesticides.”

Women tend to pick and plant, which is the back-breaking work, but they’re not seen to contribute

Another brand that is leading on sustainable cotton is Primark, which is selling women’s cotton pyjama sets being made from fibres grown by some 1,200 farmers in Gujarat in north-west India. There, it’s partnered with CottonConnect, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to deliver agricultural training, as well as education in health and nutrition, and business skills. For Katharine Stewart, who leads on ethical trade and environmental sustainability for Primark, it’s about achieving social as well as environmental impact. Farmers, she says, have seen an almost 250% increase in income by the end of the third year, and they’ve been able to start buying equipment as opposed to renting.

CottonConnect’s chief executive, Alison Ward, used to work on Fairtrade Cocoa with Cadbury and has taken some Fairtrade ideas into cotton – to help find ways of rewarding women’s work. “Men tend to do the hard labour; women tend to pick and plant, which is the back-breaking work but they’re not seen to contribute. Men sell the cotton – and women don’t get access to the cash,” she says.

CottonConnect is also running "inter-cropping" trials where other crops such as cumin, or lentils, are planted between successive cotton crops to help farmers offset any variation in cotton prices, and to earn cash locally.

Women's contribution to cotton production is often undervalued. (Credit: C&A Foundation)

Both Primark, and Premier Inn’s owner Whitbread – the UK’s second-largest user of cotton – have opted for CottonConnect’s REEL scheme, a programme training farmers in sustainable practices that enables brands to map cotton production down to the farm level. BCI’s scheme works, like Fairtrade – on mass balance – so the farmers don’t know where their cotton ends up and brands don’t actually know how much of the cotton in their product comes from sustainable production. Accordingly, it’s not labelled as such.

Ward notices that while knowledge is passed down through generations of farmers, most have never had any real training – for example, to understand which bugs are useful, how to make organic pesticides, and how much water is needed.

Organic cotton is often rain fed – and if there is a water source to pump from, then by drip irrigation. Ward points out that a lot of farmers flood-irrigate, so they overwater, when in fact cotton likes a bit of drought.

We’ve done all the ground work – brands don’t have that excuse anymore

Chester, at the C&A Foundation, comments that there are enough standards: she wants to see them all collaborate more, and bring in efficiencies, for example around common traceability systems. Without transparency, it’s difficult to persuade brands to use new types of cotton fibre, she says.

Cotton 2040, a new initiative led by Forum for the Future, aims to cut through some of the confusion by launching a sustainable sourcing guide, a one-stop shop to provide all the information brands need to understand from the many different schemes.

Charlene Collison, who is leading the project, acknowledges that a sourcing guide doesn't itself create widespread change, but once launched there will be a campaign to encourage brands to source sustainably.

“There is a business case for it: as a contribution to Sustainable Development Goals; to improve reputation with investors looking at ESG performance; and reduce risks such as pollution, soil depletion, slavery, enforced labour – all serious risks.” She adds: “We’ve done all that ground work – you [brands] don’t have that excuse anymore.”

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability.  

Main picture credit: bioRe

This article is part of the in-depth briefing, Sustainable Textiles. See also:

How the fashion industry is cottoning on to the circular economy

Brands urged to continue boycott of Uzbek cotton despite promised reforms

sustainable cotton  Better Cotton Initiative  Whitbread  C&A Foundation  Organic Cotton Accelerator  Marks and Spencer Plan A 

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