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Of Top Cotton Users, Over 75% ‘Appear to Do Virtually Nothing’ on Cotton Sustainability

Image credit: Siddharth Tripathy/Solidaridad/WWF

More sustainable cotton has become more widely available thanks to collaborations such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and other programs focused on minimizing the use of highly hazardous pesticides, improving working conditions, addressing biodiversity issues, and reducing water consumption in cotton agriculture. An estimated 13 percent of global cotton supply in 2015 was ‘more sustainable,’ and yet, less than one fifth of that amount was purchased as ‘more sustainable’ cotton, according to research commissioned by Solidaridad, WWF, and Pesticides Action Network UK (PAN UK). The rest is being sold as conventional due to lack of demand from brands.

“Buying more sustainable cotton has never been easier,” the Director of Market Transformation at WWF, Richard Holland, said in the report. “Leading companies like IKEA and H&M are showing it’s possible to use 100 percent more sustainable cotton in their products within a couple of years.”

In an effort to accelerate change, the organizations commissioned Rank a Brand to assess major cotton-using companies on their published cotton sustainability performance. The 37 companies estimated to use the most cotton in their products were ranked across policy, actual use in products (uptake), and traceability, for a maximum available score of 19.5 points. Most points were available for sourcing and use according to volumes used from BCI, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Organic, and Fairtrade – four standards judged to be sustainable for the research. The results were published earlier this month in a report, Sustainable Cotton Ranking: Assessing company performance.

Only 8 scored 3.0 points or more: IKEA received the highest score with 12.0 points and was the only company to fall in the ‘green zone.’ H&M Group (9.0), C&A Global (9.0), and adidas Group (7.75) are ‘well on the way’ in the yellow zone; and Nike (6.75), M&S (5.5), VF Corporation (3.25), and Kering (3.0) are ‘starting the journey,’ with scores in the orange zone.

A staggering 29 of the evaluated companies fell in the red zone and “appear to do virtually nothing on cotton sustainability:” 17 scored less than 3.0 points and a further 12 provided little or no information and therefore scored no points at all. Inditex Group, the parent company of Zara, topped this group with a score of 2.50 while Burberry scored 2.25. Several including Macy’s Inc. (1.25) scored below 2.0 but over 1.0, while Walmart and Hudson’s Bay Co. each received just 1.0 point. Target Corp (0.75) and GAP Inc. (0.5) were among those to receive less than 1.0 point, and Coach Inc., Foot Locker Inc., Hermès International SA, JCPenney, Nordstrom Inc., and Ralph Lauren Corporation were among those to receive a zero score.

The organizations note that the scores may not accurately reflect all of the companies’ performance if they are not communicating their policies and practices publicly, and that specific brands may be performing better than their parent company. However, the widespread absence of publicly available information on policies, sourcing and supply chain traceability across the textile sector is a strong signal in itself. Transparency is crucial for overall market transformation.

“It’s clear that just a few leading companies are doing the heavy lifting on sourcing sustainable cotton,” said Isabelle Roger, the Global Cotton Programme Manager at Solidaridad. “For the cotton sector as a whole to become sustainable, all other major companies will need to get on board.”

“IKEA, C&A and H&M are showing how cotton sustainability is good for business but many top companies are failing to deliver,” Holland said of the new report, adding that given the supply of sustainable cotton, “there is no excuse for companies not to offer more responsible products to customers.”

PAN UK, Solidaridad and WWF assert that all companies using large quantities of cotton “can strengthen their business by taking responsibility and pursing sustainability.” They offer several recommendations for companies at each stage of the process.

Low-scoring companies are encouraged to:

  • Develop and publish a policy for sourcing more sustainable cotton for their products, including time-bound targets – companies serious about sustainability should be sourcing 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020 at the latest; and
  • Consider joining an organization such as the BCI or Textile Exchange.

Companies who have already begun the process can improve their performance by:

  • Encouraging all their suppliers to participate in credible sustainability programmes;
  • Increasing the amount of more sustainable cotton they source and purchase to send a strong market signal for sustainability;
  • Reporting transparently on cotton sourcing and sustainability; and
  • Mapping supply chains and using traceability tools.

The organizations suggest that the most credible sources for sustainable cotton are Organic, Fairtrade, or from the BCI or CmiA programs, and encourages companies to seek out such suppliers or use recycled cotton.

“Lack of uptake of more sustainable cotton is a massive missed opportunity,” said PAN UK Director Keith Tyrell. “Conventional cotton production often suffers from serious social and environmental impacts such as excessive water and hazardous pesticide use. Growing the sustainable cotton market is our best chance of cleaning up cotton and protecting worker health.”


Hannah Furlong is one of Sustainable Brands's Contributing Writers, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]


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