WWF

From Cotton Fields to High Street Racks, Fashion Bids to be 100% Sustainable

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Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment

More Companies to be Assessed in Second Sustainable Cotton Ranking

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Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Solidaridad and WWF have released the list of companies that will be assessed in the new round of their Sustainable Cotton Ranking to be published in October 2017. The second edition of the ranking will include major companies from all continents, including from countries such as China and Brazil, and online companies such as Zalando and Amazon. As in 2016, the ranking will score companies on their policy, traceability and actual uptake of sustainable cotton.

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On the Target List

This year the scope of the ranking will be broadened. The target list of companies (PDF) has been expanded to offer a more global representation of consumer-facing companies estimated to use more than 10,000 metric tons of lint cotton annually and include companies from emerging markets and online retailers.

Creating a list of the largest corporate cotton users is challenging as most companies do not publish the volumes they use in their products. PAN UK, Solidaridad and WWF welcome feedback from any companies who believe their cotton use has been under or over-estimated, as well as those whose may have been omitted from the list and wish to be included.

Scoring Company Progress

The first Cotton Ranking (PDF) published in 2016 showed that the majority of companies using most cotton globally were failing to deliver on cotton sustainability, with just eight companies out of 37 showing positive progress in the ranking.

By conducting a second Cotton Ranking in 2017, PAN UK, Solidaridad and WWF expect to see that more companies have taken steps forward on their sustainable cotton policies, traceability and sourcing. As transparency and accountability to customers is considered paramount by the three NGOs, only publicly available information will be used in scoring company performance. The report will be published in October 2017 so as to take into account companies’ public reporting on their 2016 performance.

Updating Market Trends

The report will also include a market update on the available supply and uptake of cotton from the main cotton sustainability standards (organic, Fairtrade, Cotton Made in Africa and Better Cotton). While around 10% of global cotton supply was grown according to one of these standards in 2014, less than a fifth of this amount was actually being bought as more sustainable cotton, with the rest being sold as conventional due to lack of demand from top brands and companies.

Notes

Cotton Ranking

The Cotton Ranking 2016 report can be downloaded here along with the briefing ‘Mind the Gap: Towards a More Sustainable Cotton Market’ (PDF) published in April 2016 which gives an overview of the market for more sustainable cotton.

Thirty-seven companies estimated globally to use the most cotton in their products were scored on their sustainable cotton policy, sourcing, and traceability. Only publicly available information was used in scoring company performance.

The Cotton Ranking focuses on companies rather than individual brands as, while sustainability practices can vary significantly between different brands, entire companies need to change sourcing practices in order to transform cotton production.

Cotton Globally

Cotton is grown in around 80 countries worldwide and is a key raw material for the textile industry, accounting for around 32% of all fibres used. Sustainability issues include the widespread use of pesticides, with 6.2% of global pesticide sales associated with cotton production (which uses just 2.3% of the world’s arable land), and intensive water use, with 73% of global production currently dependent on irrigation.

While many smallholder cotton farmers are driven into debt by the cost of pesticides and fertilisers, sustainable cotton production has the potential to lift farmers out of poverty by providing a more stable income and improving working conditions.

A number of sustainable cotton standards have been developed in the last 35 years, starting with Organic cotton in the 1980s, followed by Fairtrade in 2004, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) in 2005 and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2009. All provide guidance and support for farmers and seek to assure retailers and consumers that the cotton in the products they buy are being produced using sustainable farming methods.

The supply of sustainable cotton has never been greater (estimated to be at 13% of global supply in 2015) but uptake by companies, essential for mainstreaming sustainable cotton, remains low at approximately 17% of what is available.

*This story first appeared on Solidaridad Network

The Truth about Water and Cotton: It’s Complicated

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Cotton has a reputation for being “difficult,” water-wise. Numerous non-profits and global media outlets such as The Guardian have laid blame on it for dwindling water resources in places like India, or for the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea. The truth, as is often the case, is not so cut and dried. In fact, cotton is downright drought tolerant and there are numerous ongoing efforts to improve cotton’s water footprint across the board.

If cotton is not such a grotesque water hog, why the erroneous conventional wisdom? According to Ed Barnes, Senior Director for Agricultural and Environmental Research with Cotton Inc, a U.S.-based industry research and lobbying organization, quite often, it is guilt-by-association.

“Cotton naturally is very heat and drought tolerant,“said Barnes. “The plant…has always grown in very harsh environments. When you have a crop that is adapted to hot and dry climates, then it is growing in areas that experience water scarcity.”

Understanding where cotton is being grown is key to both understanding its water footprint, and also developing strategies to improve it.

“There all these complexities,” said Laila Petrie with the World Wildlife Federation’s Global Partnerships Team. “Is cotton being grown in a water-scarce area? Is there not good water governance?”

Even factoring all this, cotton – as one of the world’s mostimportant agricultural products – does effect water scarcity in certain parts of the world, with sometimes negative impacts.

“There is a correlation between cotton and high irrigation, and there’s a high correlation between cotton growth and water scarcity and high water risk areas,” said Petrie.

Still, putting all the blame on the cotton plant is misguided. While farmers bear some responsibility, things like global warming and lack of oversight are beyond their control.

For example, the Aral Sea. While it is true that cotton farming was scaled up around Central Asia by the then ruling Soviet Union Government, it was the diversion of rivers away from the landlocked sea for unsustainable irrigation, all for quick cash from cottonexports, that was to blame for the disaster.

“The Aral Sea is a real tragedy of modern times,” said Barnes, “But there was nothing intrinsic about cotton that contributed to that problem.”

The truth is, we need cotton. As a product, it has numerous advantages. It is durable, recyclable, and provides livelihoods to millions. It’s main competitors – synthetics such as polyester, or leather – are rife with sustainability challenges as well. Cotton is an essential part of the global economy, and that is not changing anytime soon.

“Water is not a cotton problem, it’s a world problem, and none of us have really cracked that. It just so happens that cotton production is correlated with areas that have challenges,” said Petrie.

Thus, to blame the cotton plant alone would be a folly, and ignores the important role that technology, good governance, and proper farming techniques can play in making the crop more sustainable. In fact, Cotton Inc is working directly with farmers to provide better tools to help them make smarter water decisions – and seeing real results.

“The trend over the last 30 years – for every inch of water we use in irrigation, we’re getting more cotton,” said Barnes. “We’re finding over a 70 percent increase in lbs per inch of water.” And new technology, including the growing power of data, is making things ever better.

“One of our big pushes in the last five years is use of sensors in the field to measure the soil or the plant to see if it needs water,” said Barnes. They hope to have a national app for farmers next year that taps into sensor data, and data from the national weather service, to better equip farmers with the information they need to reduce water usage.

WWF is also working with partners – including Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and numerous other global brands – to improve cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative. Their goal is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

This means understanding that cotton’s life-cycle water usage and consumption, however, is not just what happens in the fields. Throughout the entire supply chain water is used, whether it is processing, printing, or even consumers washing and drying cotton products at homes across the world.

“Not much visibility from one end to another,” said Petrie. “There are 20 steps between the brand and cotton field. Cotton is traded as a commodity which means its hard to trace without a lot of effort.

This is a fundamental challenge for the industry.”

Both Cotton Inc, and WWF, have commissioned extensive, detailed reports and studies to figure out the whole picture of cotton’s water footprint, because unless we truly understand cotton at every phase of its, we can’t make it sustainable. In a future piece, we’ll look at the entire supply-chain water impacts of cotton to better understand the big picture.

*This story first appeared on The Triple Pundit