What makes a company a leader on sustainable cotton?

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© Asim Hafeez _ WWF-UK

Today, 2 October Pesticide Action Network UK, Solidaridad and WWF published the second Sustainable Cotton Ranking Report assessing the performance of multinational companies using large volumes of cotton in their products.

Present in hundreds of everyday items, from clothes and bed linen to mattresses, towels and even bank notes, cotton is a vital cash crop for more than 100  million, mostly poor farmers, in about 80 countries worldwide. Unfortunately, conventional production is characterized by environmental, social and economic challenges that threaten the sector’s sustainability.

Focusing on published cotton policies, sourcing of more sustainable cotton and traceability of supply chains, this year, 75 companies were evaluated – double the number examined in the first Report in 2016.

The leaders are IKEA, Tchibo GmbH, Marks & Spencer, C&A Group and H&M.

In total, 22 large companies are using more sustainable cotton in their products, with the top five increasing their use by about 20%. C&A Group, in fact, have nearly doubled their use of more sustainable cotton in one year. And overall progress has been made by over 30 companies, including on policy and traceability.

These are positive developments for farmers who have worked hard to improve their cotton growing – it means their crop is more likely to be purchased on better terms.

So what does it take to make a company a leader on more sustainable cotton?

Firstly, most of the leaders are clothing or household goods companies which means that textiles and cotton are major raw materials in their products.  An exception is Tesco, the highest ranked supermarket, whose main business is food.

Secondly, most of the top ten companies have been active on cotton sustainability for at least ten years, indicating the level of commitment required. Positively, most of the next 20 companies in the ranking have taken up the cotton challenge more recently. This shows it is becoming easier for companies to act as the total volume of sustainable cotton has increased to more than 15% of global production from less than 1% in 2010.  

Thirdly, leading companies have invested time in building lasting relationships with their suppliers to ensure that more sustainable cotton actually gets into their products. In some cases this also involves significantly changing how they place orders, giving more weight to sustainability alongside price, quality and delivery time.

Finally, leaders are willing to talk publicly about the challenges of cotton and what they are doing about it. Indeed, discussing problems and solutions with stakeholders, in conferences, on websites and in annual reports, may be the most important step overall.

While leading companies are now using more sustainable cotton than in 2016, overall uptake in products remains low.

Only around one fifth (21%) of all cotton produced sustainably is actively sourced by companies, with the rest is sold as conventional cotton and is not being picked-up by brand and retailer supply chains.

For more sustainable cotton to become the norm requires more than a handful of companies, however large, doing the heavy lifting.

For sustainable cultivation to thrive, its benefits must be clear to producers. Only consistent and growing demand for more sustainable cotton, together with increased sourcing and uptake from buyers, will make a convincing business case and secure a lasting future for the entire sector.

We’re asking all companies that use significant cotton volumes to commit to sourcing 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020.

There is no reason why all large companies can’t match the lead on cotton sustainability given by C&A Group, H&M, M&S, Tchibo GmbH and IKEA. There is now a vast amount of information, experience and advice about sourcing more sustainable cotton available publicly and through credible programmes such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

To find out more about the companies leading the way and how to join them in sourcing more sustainable cotton, visit the Cotton Ranking 2017 website or get directly in touch with us (Pesticide Action Network UK, Solidaridad and WWF).

Richard Holland is WWF’s Director of Strategy and Operations for Conservation. He is based in the Netherlands.

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