A consortium of government sponsors, farmers, brands and factories have developed, committed to and established a standard of cotton production based on environmental sustainability, worker rights and quality produce. In India, farmers committing to the Better Cotton standard have collectively reduced their pesticide use by 24% and water use by 14% while increasing profits by 44%.
Results & Impact
In 2015, 11.9% of all global cotton, produced by 1.6 million farmers worldwide, was Better Cotton. By 2020 the project hopes to include five million farmers and account for 30% of all globally produced cotton
Adidas, Gap Inc., H&M, International Cocoa Organisation, Instituto de Financiamento da Agricultura de Pescas, German Federal Ministry for Economic Development, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sustainable Trade Initiative, International Finance Corporation, IKEA, Organic Exchange, Oxfam, Pesticide Action Network UK, WWF, cotton farmers and cotton spinners
All the participating stakeholders in the cotton industry worked together to develop a certification for sustainable cotton production. Large purchasers like IKEA and H&M commit to buying a certain amount of certified cotton, and farmers are trained in producing the sustainable product to guarantee both supply and demand. The partnership also undertakes regular inspection to ensure the standards are kept
Mali, India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, Tajikistan
Cost & Value
In 2015, the Better Cotton Initiative invested €12 million in 70 farm projects across eight countries
Running since 2009
Improved efficiency in cotton production can lead to an increase in use of resources like water, worsening the environmental impact of cotton production. Physical traceability is currently not incorporated into the Better Cotton tracking system and, while this allows easier incorporation of product into the supply chain, this can be problematic for some buyers
Aiming for mainstream incorporation into the cotton supply chain, with expansion to new corporate and government partners and sponsorship from government partners including Sweden, Germany and Switzerland.
Stakeholders from farmers to fashion brands have secured a more than 11% market share for certified sustainable cotton. Working at all stages of the supply chain, the consortium of partners has improved sustainability on a broad range of indicators, reducing pesticide use by more than half in Mali, increasing the use of organic fertilisers by 85% in Pakistan, and upping profits for farmers in India by 44%.
Cotton is a renewable resource, and at least 20 million tonnes of it is produced each year. But farming of the crop is plagued by sustainability challenges, including environmental exploitation, poor working conditions and unstable markets.
The BCI has responded to those challenges by bringing together farmers, traders and yarn spinners, manufacturers in fabric mills, brands selling cotton products, and governments, across 24 countries. These diverse parties are working together to uphold the Better Cotton Standard, a certification that guarantees a matrix of sustainability requirements: crop production, water usage, soil health, biodiversity, fibre quality and decent work.
By establishing cooperation between actors at every stage of the supply chain, BCI has established a secure supply of responsibly grown cotton. That’s great for the environment and sustainability but it also helps the parties involved. Farmers enjoy higher yields and profits, thanks in part to reduced pesticide costs; the supply chain benefits from a transparent and reliable source of product; and brands can make progress toward corporate social responsibility goals and advertise their sustainability credentials.
“We are absolutely a farm level organisation so all our money goes on the ground. The standard is only relevant at production,” explained Morgan Ferrar, a spokesperson at Better Cotton, said. But because the BCI standard isn’t based on customers paying a premium for the mark they need to be motivated to participate in other ways.
“Farmers that are licensed BCI farmers don’t get paid a premium, what they do get is support and education. They taught to use water and pesticide more effectively, which helps them to save money,” Ferrar said. “At the end they have higher yields which leads to higher profitability because of the knowledge they have. There’s also a little bit a prestige.”
The farmers then sell their produce through better cotton to multiple brands, and the cooperation of a broad range of players at all levels of the cotton trade has helped the standard develop into a mainstream product. Since 2007, the production of Better Cotton has expanded from Brazil, India, Mozambique and Australia, and since 2009 the number of organisations committing to the standard has increased 50% year on year.
Farmers access training and support to meet the minimum requirements of the Better Cotton Standard, but certification is just the first stage of their participation. Standards in farms are monitored by an assurance committee, convened from BCI members and independent parties, and farmers are encouraged to work with their feedback to continually improve sustainability.
Today, businesses buying into the Better Cotton standard include Levi Strauss, John Lewis, H&M and Burberry. All have committed to purchasing a percentage of their cotton from sustainable sources, and IKEA, a founding partner, now sources 69% of its cotton from Better Cotton. Commercial brands also share their commitment in publicity and advertising, helping broaden the public understanding of sustainable cotton and bringing the standard into the mainstream of the trade.
Rather than segregating BCI standard cotton through the supply chain, the project uses a mass balance system to absorb the product into the market. Purchasers buy “units” of certified cotton, which is harvested separately then mixed with conventional cotton at milling stage. While what the cotton buyers receive isn’t necessarily Better Cotton, the volume they order corresponds with the quantities that move through the chain. That means the percentage of sustainable cotton can gradually increase without the need to set up new structures of supply and manufacture.
“The main reason we have adopted mass balance is because we have very ambitious targets,” Ferrar said. The method has drawbacks: the fact that clothing is not 100% sustainable cotton leaves brands vulnerable to accusations of greenwashing, for example. But it makes a smooth absorption of BCI cotton into the market possible. “Segregation would mean all the market actors would need to revamp their business practices, and we need to work with existing business practices.”
With already rapid growth, the next stage for Better Cotton is inclusion into the mainstream trade, and it’s hoped that the product will account for 30% of globally produced cotton by 2020.