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How a Practical Guide to Sourcing Sustainable Cotton Could Help Transform the Industry

Image credit: CottonUP

‘I would like to source more sustainable cotton, but I’m not quite sure where to start. There seems to be an awful lot of standards out there, and I’m not quite sure what the differences are between them.’
‘I’d like to increase the volumes of sustainable cotton I buy, but I’m worried about sourcing different types of sustainable cotton — does a portfolio approach work?’
‘I want to source sustainable cotton. I just want this to be easy. I wonder how other brands are doing it.’

These are real challenges, from real people working for real brands and retailers, big and small, across the world. In response to these challenges, on June 27th, at the BCI Global Cotton Conference in Brussels, the partners in the Cotton 2040 coalition are launching CottonUP — a practical guide to sourcing more sustainable cotton.

Why cotton, why now? Cotton is the most abundantly produced natural fibre in the global economy and its production supports the livelihoods of over 350 million people. However, cotton production is associated with significant environmental and social challenges that undermine the sustainability of the apparel sector as a whole. Sourcing more sustainable cotton has the potential to lift millions of farmers and their families out of poverty and reduce the commodity’s negative environmental impacts.

Put simply, switching to the production of more sustainable cotton has huge potential environmental and social benefits and could help accelerate our overall progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

Plus, sourcing more sustainable cotton has huge business benefits, from brand building to minimising reputational risk, from increasing transparency to building long-term security of supply. And yet, even though according to the 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, 75 percent of fashion companies have improved their environmental and social performance over the past year, only around 15 percent of all cotton grown has any sustainability credentials, with only a fifth of this being sold as sustainable cotton — a mere 3 percent of the total global cotton supply.

So, how can one digital guide designed to help fashion brands and retailers fast track sourcing strategies across multiple standards ultimately help mainstream sustainable cotton production?

Well, because pulling the demand lever for any product can help drive market transformation, particularly if other levers are pulled at the same time.

This is the essence of the theory of change behind Cotton 2040, a unique cross-industry initiative aimed at integrating and accelerating action on critical issues to mainstream sustainably grown cotton by driving collaboration in three priority areas. As well as building demand for sustainable cotton the project aims to improve smallholder resilience and make traceability of cotton easier and more comparable.

Convened by global sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future with support from the C&A Foundation and started in 2015, Cotton 2040 brings together leading retailers M&S, Target and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail; industry standards Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Made in Africa; organic standards represented by Textile Exchange and Fairtrade; industry initiatives CottonConnect, Cotton Australia, Proudly Made in Africa and Organic Cotton Accelerator; as well as IDH – the sustainable trade initiative, MADE-BY and Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. In other words, Cotton 2040 has invited ‘the system into the room’ — a key enabler for systemic change.

The CottonUP guide is a milestone output from Cotton 2040 and seeks to address one of the main barriers for companies looking to start sourcing or increase the amounts of sustainable cotton they source: the time and resources required to research and implement the most appropriate sourcing approach for their organisation’s sustainability priorities.

The guide highlights the business case and main sourcing options for sustainable cotton, provides guidance on creating a sourcing strategy and working with suppliers, and shares case studies from companies that have already navigated the complex challenges of sourcing more sustainable cotton. Our aim is to support all Cotton 2040 partners to drive demand to increase production of more sustainable cotton from 15 percent to beyond 30 percent from 2020. The theory is that at 30 percent of total production, the market reaches a tipping point at which the more usual market drivers kick in and sustainable cotton continues to grow without catalytic market enablers.

We’ve even boiled it all down to six steps to sourcing sustainable cotton:

Click to enlarge

The CottonUP guide has the potential to create catalytic change in the global cotton sector, as increasing demand will drive a range of other positive impacts. And it’s catalytic change, not incremental change that shifts systems. 

There are two other aspects to this guide that make me feel more confident that we’ll see systemic change. First, the production of the guide has created additionality between numerous existing initiatives focused on sustainable cotton. As a neutral convenor, Forum for the Future has provided a space in the cotton system for the standards, codes and other programmes to collaborate and combine their energy and resources to create something — a guide for use across the whole spectrum of more sustainable cotton — that would have been hard to create in isolation. Second, this isn’t just a story of standards collaborating: Several leading brands from across the globe have also come together in a pre-competitive space to share what they’ve learnt in their sustainable cotton journeys.

The CottonUP guide features the ABC of transformational change: Additionality, Brand-led Collaboration and Catalysis. It’s now time for D  dissemination. Over the coming months, Cotton 2040 partners will be reaching out to individual organisations and the wider industry to encourage greater use of cotton and provide support through webinars and other knowledge-sharing opportunities.  

We would encourage all of you in the global cotton system to access the CottonUP guide at www.cottonupguide.org, sign up to the Six Steps to Sourcing Sustainable Cotton, hear about these opportunities, and to play your part in changing the apparel sector for good.


Sally is Chief Executive at Forum for the Future with overall responsibility for delivering Forum’s mission to accelerate a big shift towards a sustainable future by catalysing transformational change in global systems. This involves working with leading global organisations,… [Read more about Sally Uren]


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