Is sustainable cotton becoming a mainstream commodity?

According to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which launched its 2019 Annual Report this week, it looks to be soon. BCI reports that Better Cotton – cotton produced by licensed BCI Farmers in line with the initiative’s Better Cotton Principles and Criteria – now accounts for 22 percent of global cotton production. That is enough cotton to make approximately 8 billion pairs of jeans, a pair each for every person in the world. In addition, BCI retailer and brand members sourced more than 1.5 million metric tons of sustainable cotton in 2019, a 40 percent increase over 2018.

 

Given that it takes an estimated 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, let’s hope the trend continues.

 

Profits, but at a cost

According to WWF, cotton is the most widespread and profitable non-food crop in the world. In fact, approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton. Cotton production also provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7 percent of all labor in developing countries. However, the downside of cotton production is its well-known environmental impact. In addition to significant water usage, conventional production practices for cotton involve the application of substantial fertilizers and pesticides that threaten the quality of soil and water and the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. Heavy use of pesticides also raises concern for the health of farm workers and nearby populations.

 

Established in 2009, BCI’s mission is “to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, the environment it grows in and the sector’s future.” Its more than 1,800 members pledge to support its seven principles and criteria, ranging from minimizing the harmful impact of crop protection practices and promoting water stewardship, to promoting decent work and operating effective management systems.

 

Members comprise retailers and brands — including some of the most recognized names like Adidas, Ikea, Burberry, Nike, Gap, Levi Strauss & Co., and Marks & Spencer — as well as suppliers and manufacturers, civil society groups, producer organizations and associate members. BCI says it is the world’s largest cotton sustainability program, a claim it backs up in its latest report.

 

Aiming for 100 percent sustainable cotton

Many of BCI’s members have set goals to source 100 percent sustainable cotton, with some already nearly meeting them.

 

Adidas was one of the first, announcing in 2018 that 100 percent of the cotton it used globally was either “Better Cotton” or organic cotton. Nike, which reports that more than half of its water footprint comes from cotton farming, says it is on track to source 100 percent of its cotton more sustainably by this year. In 2019, 55 percent of its cotton was certified organic, recycled or BCI, which it says has helped the company save an estimated 25 billion liters of water and more than 92,000 kilograms of pesticides from its supply chain. Target has set a goal to source 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2022 for its owned and exclusive national brands in apparel, home and essentials based on its cotton policy, which it introduced in  2017.

 

To help meet demand for sustainably produced cotton, BCI works with local implementing partners to provide training on sustainable agricultural practices. In 2019, it provided support to 2.3 million cotton farmers, 2.1 million of whom gained a license to sell BCI sustainable cotton based on an assessment of eight indicators designed to ensure that they are on track to meeting clearly defined standards for pesticide use, water management, decent work, record keeping, training and other factors. The greatest increase in numbers of licensed farmers was in India and Pakistan, where more than 100,000 additional farmers in each country achieved a BCI license.

 

Together, there are BCI-licensed farmers in 23 countries on five continents, the overwhelming majority being smallholder farmers who farm on less than 20 hectares.  By the end of the 2020-2021 cotton season, BCI aims to more than double the number of cotton farmers its supports from 2.3 million to 5 million – one of five 2020 targets the collaborative has set to help meet global volume demand for sustainable cotton.

 

BCI admits, however, that the global COVID-19 pandemic has added an element of uncertainty, which may prevent some members from achieving their 2020 sourcing targets.

“We are committed to not only continuing to deliver beneficial change at field level, but also to learning from the experience and adapting to become more effective,” said Alan McClay, CEO of BCI. “We do not yet know how close we will come to our 2020 targets, and we are still assessing how the current COVID-19 pandemic will impact our efforts. But one thing is certain, we have made significant and undeniable progress over the past 10 years, and there are many successes to celebrate.”

 

Not immune to COVID-19

Like the rest of the world, the cotton sector has felt the impact from COVID-19. The world price of cotton fell approximately 20 percent from January (pre-COVID 19 pandemic) to April. In later trading, the market recovered about half of those losses, but there has been persistent price uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic and the accumulated impact of disruptions in the supply chain. Together, these challenges present real and devastating consequences for smallholder farmers, according to BCI.

 

“The fact that the coronavirus is mostly concentrated in cities does not mean that rural communities have been spared,” McClay wrote in a recent BCI blog. “They may be far from the vortex of contagion, but they are also less resourced with protections against the coronavirus and adequate healthcare if they or their family members become ill.”

 

Together with local organizations, BCI implementing partners have stepped in to not only ensure that farmers receive training and support for the upcoming cotton season, but also food packages, safety equipment and health information about COVID-19. BCI implementing partners in India, for example, are using WhatsApp to share advice on how to stay safe in the face of COVID-19 with farmers and local communities. They are also sharing guidelines and best practices through videos and e-posters in local languages. In Mozambique, the BCI Assurance Team piloted a process using remote communications to maintain assurance activities during the government-imposed lockdown, while prioritizing the health and wellbeing of all concerned – field and partner staff, farmers, workers and verifiers.

 

Despite the challenges, McClay remains optimistic and focused on the future of BCI, which is poised to release its 2030 strategy in the last quarter of 2020. “Delivering positive change at farm level will remain our core focus, while we continue to scale our efforts to ensure more sustainable cotton becomes the norm.”

For the sake of farmers and the planet, let’s hope it does.