Forget Organic, Retailers Increasingly Are Turning to Sustainable Cotton

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-1x-1.pngMajor brands have increased their use of so-called Better Cotton.

Cotton, the most widely used natural fiber, is considered the world’s dirtiest crop because of its heavy use of pesticides—its cultivation accounts for up to 17.5 percent of global insecticide sales, according to some estimates. So in recent years, several apparel and home-goods companies, including Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Nike, have used organic cotton, grown by farmers who eschew pesticides and enrich their soil with compost.

That’s good for the environment but raises another big problem: Organic cotton is too expensive for average shoppers. Organic fiber cost as much as $2.20 per pound, vs. about 61¢ for conventional cotton, in the 2015-16 growing season. That’s kept demand low; less than 1 percent of the world’s cotton production is organic.

“That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses” – Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea

Over the past nine years, Ikea, Zara-parent Inditex, and H&M, among others, have signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a coalition of farmers, garment makers, and retailers committed to producing and using sustainable cotton at accessible prices. BCI farmers are taught how to grow sustainable cotton using less pesticide and water—reducing stress on the environment—at a cost close to that of regular fiber. “That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses,” says Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea. Since 2009 the retailer has increased the percentage of Better Cotton used in its products, from sheets to furniture. In fiscal 2015, 70 percent of the cotton Ikea used was Better Cotton.

Environmentally Correct T-shirts are too Expensive for Many Shoppers

Similar efforts, like Bayer CropScience’s e3 sustainable cotton program, which works with farmers to ensure they’re producing cotton responsibly, are increasing supplies of sustainable cotton. The material can help companies appeal to millennials and environmentally minded customers. “Offering a product with a sustainability cachet but not the added cost may meet the sweet spot of pleasing both a consumer’s conscience and wallet,” says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Gregory Elders.

In 2015, Nike and H&M used more sustainable cotton than organic cotton for the first time. Better Cotton has grown to around 12 percent of global cotton production in 2015, vs. 0.5 percent for organic, according to BCI. Says BCI Chief Operating Officer Lena Staafgard: “By 2020 our goal is to reach 5 million farmers worldwide and account for 30 percent of global cotton production.”

Cotton Crib Sheet
*More than 27 million tons of cotton are produced annually in over 85 countries
*Ikea uses 1 percent of the world’s cotton
*It can take up to 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Fund

*This story first appeared on Bloomberg

Nordic Pulp Firms See Future in Turning Birch Trees into Fashion

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Nordic pulp makers are developing clean ways to turn birch and pine trees into clothes to help revive their industry and meet demand from fashion and furniture firms for alternative textiles to cotton.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Nordic pulp makers are developing clean ways to turn birch and pine trees into clothes or sofa covers to help revive their industry and meet demand from fashion and furniture firms for alternative textiles to cotton.

There has been no Nordic production of viscose, the main textile fibre from timber, since the last manufacturer stopped nearly a decade ago, partly on environmental grounds.

But a 2011 spike in cotton prices contributed to increased global demand for viscose and lyocell, the other major textile fibre from wood pulp. Production is dominated by Austria’s Lenzing, India’s Aditya Birla and South Africa’s Sateri.

Three Nordic mills export dissolving pulp, the product that can be turned into textile fibre. The industry would like to see textile fibre factories set up at home that will meet environmental rules and appeal to local firms such as IKEA and Hennes & Mauritz which want to project a green image.

“We have the forest here in the Nordics, we have our pulp mills. It would be better for us if more dissolving pulp was needed in our region,” said Markus Mannstrom, chief technical officer of Finland’s Stora Enso

The forestry industry, which accounts for a fifth of Finland’s and a tenth of Sweden’s exports, has been hit by lower newsprint demand and foreign competition.

But global output of pulp for textiles is expected to grow 30 percent by 2020 from 4.4 million tonnes in 2015, according to Oliver Lansdell at forest products industry consultancy Hawkins Wright.

Anticipating the rise in demand, in 2011 Sodra, the Swedish association of 50,000 small forest owners, converted a paper pulp machines so they could make textile pulp. Stora Enso did the same in 2012.

Sweden’s Domsjo, which has made dissolving pulp since the 1930’s and was bought by Aditya Birla in 2011, said demand has risen.

“We expect cotton output to peak while textile demand will keep growing,” said Dag Benestad, head of dissolving pulp production at Sodra.


The next step would be to set up factories at the mills, creating new jobs and saving money on energy and the cost of transporting for export. Sodra, Domsjo and Stora Enso are among those intensifying research into greener fibre production processes.

Stora Enso in 2015 opened a research centre in Stockholm that looks into how to make viscose production less toxic. Domsjo and Sodra are part of a large project looking at how best to integrate a textile factory with a mill so that the chemicals are recycled.

Recycling or replacing chemicals is essential to restarting production of textile fibre from timber in a region where the pulp industry’s image was also tarnished by heavy pollution. It now uses “closed loop” production that stops chemicals seeping out.

Carbon disulfide is the main polluter of viscose production. Swedish Research institute Innventia’s Fredrik Aldaeus, who is fine-tuning a method to make pulp that dissolves more easily with reduced or zero carbon disulfide, said a modified viscose fibre plant could be up and running within five years.

The main alternative textile fibre from timber pulp is lyocell which was first developed in the 1970s and has a cleaner manufacturing method than viscose. It has been marketed by Austria’s Lenzing as Tencel since the 1990s. Nordic researchers are trying to develop something similar. Herbert Sixta, who used to work at Lenzing, has led development at Aalto and Helsinki universities of a new lyocell-type fibre. “In three to four years we should be able to show if it’s commercially viable provided that we get the necessary financial support,” he said.


H&M and IKEA, both at the forefront globally in their sectors on sustainability, are alongside smaller Nordic fashion brands such as Filippa K, are cheering on and cooperating with the pulpmakers, keen to sell products made using local forests to environmentally-conscious shoppers.

“We want them to find a more sustainable way to produce viscose,” said Cecilia Brannsten, sustainability expert at H&M, which has increased its use of Tencel in recent years because it has a better green profile despite being more expensive.

“Today’s viscose can’t directly be replaced with the more sustainable lyocell because they look and feel different.”

H&M and IKEA said they were providing funding for state- and industry-owned research institute Swerea, which recently launched an industrial-scale test of a new viscose-like process. They declined to say how much they had contributed.

Along with Sodra, they were also part of a consortium that in 2014 shelved a project using cold alkali as solvent amid differing opinions about how to proceed.

“We constantly look for innovations and innovators,” IKEA Group spokeswoman Josefin Thorell said in an email.

“We support the Swerea…project which we believe can contribute to a more sustainable future textile production,” but added that it was too early to say how long it would take to work out if the project was viable.

By Anna Ringstrom; editor: Anna Willard.

*This story first appeared on The Business of Fashion

IKEA meets aggressive better cotton pledge. What’s next?

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By Heather Clancy

Corporations are weaving stricter standards into their cotton sourcing. Bales of cotton appear here in a field. Shutterstock: Adriano Kirihara

You may not think of IKEA as a huge consumer of cotton, but the Scandinavian furniture seller uses 0.7 percent of the world’s supply for items such as sofa, upholstery and towels. That makes its sourcing milestone disclosed in September all the more significant: IKEA now buys all of its cotton from famers working in collaboration with the Better Cotton Initiative.

BCI was created 10 years ago by several non-governmental organizations along with IKEA and other notable apparel makers such as Adidas, Gap and H&M. Its mission is to encourage sustainable growing practices that rely on less water, less fertilizers and less pesticides, among other things.

IKEA’s commitment to sourcing 100 percent of its cotton from BCI sources by 2015 was the most aggressive among the original members. That was by design. “If we had not set the 100 percent target, it actually would have been hard to get this change to happen,” said Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for IKEA. “If you set a partial target, everyone thinks they can be the exception.”

Cotton was, by far, the commodity contributing most negatively to IKEA’s overall carbon footprint, according to Howard. The world’s largest home furnishing company sources most of its cotton from India, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Brazil and the United States. About 5 percent of the supply comes from U.S. sources, according to IKEA data.

Howard credits years of grassroots advocacy and education for helping IKEA’s primary cotton farmers embrace growing practices that honor the Better Cotton Standard. Some are realizing reductions in water and fertilizer usage of up to 50 percent. At the same time, yields for many have increased by 5 percent to 15 percent, Howard said.

IKEA worked closely with supply-chain partners to reach individual farmers. At the same time, it issued a top-down mandate to switch procurement to sustainable cotton sources over time — ensuring that sustainable growers had a market for their product. “This wasn’t just one company; this was a movement,” Howard said, noting that the response was particularly positive in South Asia.

Reaching its procurement goal doesn’t mean IKEA will stop paying attention to more sustainable cotton production. “This is just a milestone on the journey. We will push for a better, better cotton,” Howard said.

For one thing, IKEA continues to prioritize saving water. In particular, it advocates drip irrigation techniques because they cut down on the amount of water that is sprayed onto soil where no crops are planted.

IKEA also intends to diversify the sorts of fibers it uses for textiles, both through recycling of previously used material and by increasing the ways in which it uses hemp and flax, Howard said.

According to BCI, more than 25 million tonnes of cotton are produced annually. As of last year, about 7.6 percent of that amount was produced using farming methods that met the Better Cotton Standard. As of 2014 more than 1.2 million small farming operations have embraced the initiative in 20 countries, which was ahead of schedule. By 2020, the target is 30 percent of global production and 5 million farmers.

Here are the current goals for five other high-profile apparel makers that have committed to sourcing cotton from more sustainable sources, along with information about their current progress (where available):

  • Adidas Group – 100 percent by 2018; in 2014, the athletic apparel company sourced about 30 percent of its cotton fiber using BCI source, ahead of its goal
  • H&M – 100 percent by 2020; as of 2014, 21.2 percent of the cotton in products sold by the Swedish clothing retailer were organic, recycled or grown via BCI production methods
  • Levi Strauss & Co. — 75 percent by 2020; as of April, the denim giant had reached 6 percent
  • Marks & Spencer — 70 percent by 2020; as of its last update, the British retailer said one-third of its cotton comes from BCI, organic, recycle or Fair Trade sources
  • Nike – 100 percent by 2020; as of a 2014 update, the icon sneaker maker said it may take longer to transition its cotton sources than anticipated

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz.

The E-commerce Sustainability Quotient Matrix

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E-commerce is changing the way people shop globally. Over the last two decades, multi-billion dollar e-commerce companies have come into being. Even as they see increasing scale and success, e-commerce companies have not turned their focus on environmental sustainability – in stark contrast to the initiatives on sustainable production and consumption undertaken by world’s leading retailers like Walmart and Ikea.

Realizing the acute need for the e-commerce industry to start thinking about their environmental impact, Sustainability Outlook delved deep into e-commerce operations to create an E-commerce Sustainability Quotient Matrix. The E-commerce Sustainability Quotient Matrix will help guide e-commerce companies to assess their preparedness and current state when it comes to environmentally sustainable operations. This matrix also provides an indicative path that e-commerce companies should embark upon to make their operations greener.

The E-commerce Scenario in India

E-commerce has suddenly exploded in the Indian marketplace. What was a non-existent concept ten years ago is now a $3.5 billion industry with about 20 million active users and an annual growth rate of 34%. Flipkart and Snapdeal have set targets of Gross Merchandizing Value (GMV) of $8 billion and $10 billion respectively for 2015 as the market gets ready to see even greater growth.

Environmental Impact of E-commerce vs. Brick- and- Mortar stores

Various studies have consistently underlined that e-commerce has a significantly lower environmental impact than physical retail stores. This is primarily driven by the reduction in consumer transport to and from the stores, which is replaced by last-mile delivery for e-commerce. Multiple products to different addresses are consolidated in the e-commerce last-mile delivery system and as the number of users of e-commerce grow the per-item footprint of last-mile delivery drops significantly.

To read the complete report, click here.

**This post originally appeared here.