Global partnerships essential for increasing uptake of sustainable cotton

10 October 2017

The 2017 Sustainable Cotton Ranking report, developed by Pesticide Action Network (PAN), Solidaridad and WWF, was released last week. The report assesses the leading global cotton-using companies on their use of sustainable cotton. This year, 75 companies were assessed (up from 37 in 2016), covering the markets of Europe and the US as well as the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India and South Africa. In particular, 27 North American and 33 European companies constituted the majority of those examined by the report.

Cotton farmers in Orissa, India

Evaluating the companies in three areas, namely policy, uptake and traceability, the report indicates that sustainability efforts in cotton are currently being driven by only a handful of companies. While many companies in both Europe and North America are just getting started or are gradually on their way to becoming more sustainable, several others, including those in emerging economies, are yet to start their journey.

The report concludes that while there have been considerable improvements since the first Sustainable Cotton Ranking of 2016, there has not been enough progress to significantly transform the sector. Cotton is grown in around 80 countries worldwide as a key raw material for the textile industry, accounting for nearly 30% of all fibers used. About 75% of global production comes from small farms in developing countries, providing livelihoods for more than 100 million families who are directly engaged in cotton production. Conventional cotton production is characterized by serious environmental, social and economic concerns that threaten the sector’s sustainability. This underscores the need for sustainably produced cotton.

A worker weighing cotton for making bales at a gin in Tanzania

Even so, while there has been a growing availability of sustainably produced cotton in the market, there is a huge lag in uptake by companies. In 2016, only 21% of available sustainably produced cotton was actively sought by companies. The remaining 79% entered the conventional cotton supply, for lack of demand from top brands and retailing companies.

If sustainable cotton is to become the norm, both supply and demand need to increase significantly. The business case must be clear for both farmers and for suppliers that deliver to major retailers and brands. Therefore, companies, that heavily use cotton as a raw material, must play a crucial role in ensuring a sustainable cotton sector, by demanding sustainably produced cotton. This will reduce cotton’s environmental impacts and improve the lives of millions of farmers globally.

With more companies announcing sustainability policies and commitments, and utilizing more sustainable cotton leading to an increase in overall uptake, Solidaridad recognizes the tremendous potential among European and North American companies, even those at the forefront, to improve their performance and accelerate the rate of transformation. Further, there is ample room for companies globally, who are just starting their journeys or are yet to start, to learn from the leaders and fast-track their learning curve.

A cotton farmer in Mozambique participating in Solidaridad project, “Southern African Partnership for Sustainable Cotton and Food”

Solidaridad is committed to working together with these companies, and other supply chain partners, to further the sustainability of the cotton sector. With the overall vision of driving sector-wide change, Solidaridad, along with diverse partners including governments, traders, corporations and other civil society organizations, implements comprehensive, context-specific programmes which not only address the production and uptake of more sustainable cotton, but also allied issues of gender empowerment, food security, water conservation and strengthening farmer producer organizations. These are critical to enhancing the well-being of farming communities and the resilience of the cotton supply chain, against the challenges of climate change, poverty and resource degradation.

With an established presence on five continents, Solidaridad has partnered with numerous companies such as H&M, the VF Corporation, BESTSELLER, Decathlon, and Tommy Hilfiger and has implemented programmes in major cotton producing regions of the world including China, India, Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia.

Solidaridad welcomes the opportunity to partner with companies that are keen to drive sustainability in their cotton supply chains. Leveraging the expertise available in its global network, Solidaridad is poised to support companies who are willing to get started and take big strides towards creating a more sustainable, responsibly managed cotton sector.

Learn more about Solidaridad programmes for sustainable cotton.