Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Organic cotton. Better cotton. Fair-trade cotton. Recycled cotton. Cotton made in Africa. You’d think with all the labels and initiatives brands like to bandy about, sustainably sourced cotton would be the new industry norm. Yet the truth is quite the opposite, according to Rank a Brand, an Amsterdam-based consumer-advocacy nonprofit that evaluated 37 of the world’s top cotton-using companies—including Adidas, H&M, and Inditex—based on factors such as policy, implementation, and traceability. In a study commissioned by Pesticide Action Network U.K., Solidaridad Network, and the World Wildlife Fund, only eight businesses scored more than three out of a possible 19.5 points. Because “no company uses 100 percent more sustainable cotton according to the criteria used in this research, or is fully transparent about its policies and cotton supply chain,” Rank a Brand said, none of them achieved the maximum score.
In fact, just one company came anywhere close: IKEA, the sole denizen of Rank a Brand’s “green zone” with 12 points. The home-furnishings giant is followed by C&A and H&M (both at 9 points), Adidas (7.75), Nike (6.75), Marks & Spencer (5.5), VF Corp. (3.25), and Kering (3).
Some caveats apply, of course. These companies may be performing better than their lack of score suggests because of inadequacies in the communication of their cotton-sourcing policies and practices. And since sustainability practices can vary significantly among brands under the same corporate umbrella, Rank a Brand said that it’s also possible that specific brands are performing better than their parent company.
Another parenthetical aside: It’s equally important to note that cotton sourcing is only one part of a company’s overall sustainability commitment. There are other factors to take into consideration, including labor standards, manufacturing practices, and waste management.
That said, as far as the snapshot the study provides, some companies are obviously doing more than others.
“It’s clear that just a few leading companies are doing the heavy lifting on sourcing sustainable cotton”, said Isabelle Roger, global cotton programme manager at Solidaridad Network, said in a statement. “For the cotton sector as a whole to become sustainable, all other major companies will need to get on board.”
While around 10 to 13 percent of the global cotton supply can be classified as “more sustainable,” Rank a Brand said that less than a fifth of it is being labeled as such in products. The rest, the group added, is sold as conventional because of a lack of demand.
“Lack of uptake of more sustainable cotton is a massive missed opportunity”, said Keith Tyrell director of Pesticide Action Network U.K. “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.”
As far as improving sustainable cotton’s profile goes, Pesticide Action Network U.K., Solidaridad Network, and the World Wildlife Fund are urging all low-scoring companies to not only develop and publish policies for sourcing better-for-the-planet fibers for their products, but also supply time-bound targets they can honor.
Other recommendations include joining an organization such as the Better Cotton Initiative and Textile Exchange, encouraging their suppliers to participate in accredited sustainability programs, reporting transparently on cotton sourcing and sustainability, and using traceability tools to map their supply chains.
“IKEA, C&A, and H&M are showing how cotton sustainability is good for business but many top companies are failing to deliver,” said Richard Holland, director of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. “Sourcing more sustainable cotton has never been easier so there is no excuse for companies not to offer more responsible products to customers.”