The Better Cotton Initiative (Dec 2011)

Dec 2011

There are numerous sustainability standards that apply to the global cotton industry.  The sector has long been the target of pressure groups and public concern, be it water and chemical usage, exploitation of workers or degradation of soil.   Organic standards are popular, with specialist vendors such as Funkoos marketing their range of organic cotton baby clothes for example.   A hugely popular standard dealing with chemical usage during the textile manufacturing life cycle is the Germany-based Oeko-Tex standards  with the 100 standard advertising itself as a “globally uniform testing and certification system for textile raw materials, intermediate and end products at all stages of production”.  Fairtrade is another standard targeting cotton and celebrates the fifth anniversary of its cotton campaign this year.

The Better Cotton Initiative  was established in 2005 in response to these pressures and in an attempt to draw together under one umbrella the various sustainability pressures faced by the global cotton industry.   As with many standards-organizations, it started life as a multi-stakeholder group, based on Switzerland:  “the founding members are adidas, Gap Inc., H&M, ICCO, IFAP, IFC, IKEA, Organic Exchange, Oxfam, PAN UK, and WWF”.   While its mission 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”, the group does not at present have a third-party audited label which cotton producers and users may deploy in marketing.  Rather, the initiative has as its members some of the world’s largest users of cotton who are pressuring their supply chain on the sustainability issues in question.  In parallel with this, the BCI works in partnership with grass roots groups to train farmers.   For example, UK retailer M&S is funding a BCI project with WWF in India and its first harvest has shown an 80% reduction in pesticides and cut water usage by half.  BCI is focusing on a few regions at first.  “During the implementation start-up phase (2010-2012), the BCI geographical focus is on four regions: Brazil, India, Pakistan and West & Central Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, Togo). These regions include a diversity of climatic conditions, farm sizes, agricultural practices and environmental and social impacts”.    So the BCI uses its implementation program to define what is “BCI-certified” – only that produce which originates from BCI-backed projects in the field – currently around 100,000 farmers in these four regions.  So scaling up is a major challenge.  However, Lise Melvin, Executive Director of BCI notes that BCI-cotton in India and Pakistan yielded 100,000 tonnes, which she compares to Fairtrade cotton with 35,000 tonnes, but compares with a global harvest of 25 million tonnes.  Thus at 0.4% of global output the potential for expansion is huge.

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