Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton

No-one puts ‘cotton’ on their Christmas wish-list, but that won’t stop this ubiquitous fibre appearing inside millions of gift-wrapped parcels this festive season.

While synthetic fibres have been on the rise for decades, cotton remains the most used natural material in clothing. From socks and shirts to dresses and denim, it makes up for around one third of all fibres in textiles.

But, like all raw materials used in consumer products, making cotton carries a footprint for the planet. It needs land, water and – in the case of non-organic cotton – chemicals to grow, plus energy and additional chemicals to find its way from the field gate onto our clothes hangers.

Shoppers are not blind to such impacts, especially young people. In response, the fashion industry is looking to push sustainability through its supply chain, both for cotton and other fabrics. But, as a recent progress report by the UN-backed Fashion Industry Charter reveals, much more needs to be done.

Working collectively across the whole industry, from producers to retailers, is the only way to create the step change required. To quote fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood’s reflections on the recent UN climate summit: “Without cooperation, nothing can be done.”

As the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, Better Cotton has made industry collaboration our watchword since our inception back in 2009. Our certification system now covers nearly one quarter (23 per cent) of cotton production around the world.

Cooperation and partnership is also at the heart of our current discussions with suppliers and manufacturers connecting the global cotton supply chain through full physical traceability – a mammoth undertaking we have kicked off and an option which we will bring to market within the next 24 months.

Ultimately, success is not simply about scale; what counts is impact on the ground. Again, that’s happening. Better Cotton farmers in Tajikistan used 16 per cent less water while those in India used 23 per cent less synthetic pesticide than their non-certified peers in the 2019-20 season.

Even so, we still need to go further and faster. The good news is that many of the solutions for sustainable cotton already exist. A recent industry report finds that existing production innovations can deliver 86 per cent of the emission reductions required.

To accelerate uptake of these solutions, as well as to spark high-impact innovations, Better Cotton is embarking on a new 2030 Strategy for the climate-critical decade ahead.

The goal of our strategy is to reduce the negative social and environmental impacts of cotton production as deeply as we can, as quickly as we can, and among as many farmers as we can.

To signal our ambition, we’ve set ourselves a challenging target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of Better Cotton produced by 50 per cent by 2030 (from a 2017 baseline).

We’re also aware that farming communities are already being hit by the effects of higher temperatures and more erratic weather patterns. By 2040, for instance, half of the global cotton crop could be hit by droughts – with massive implications for consumer prices as well as farmer incomes.

Climate resilience consequently stands as a second key pillar of our new Climate Approach. The lives of some 350 million people depend on cotton. Training and equipping farmers to adopt climate-smart agricultural practices will become a central focus for us.

We know from our own research that the biggest hurdle for farmers is the fear that green farming methods will see their incomes fall. We know that it is generally the other way around. But we don’t expect farmers to take our word for it, which is why we’re participating in a Living Income Community of Practice exercise.

The initiative, designed by GIZ and others, is designed to help us improve our own data collection in order to explore activities that can help farmers and farm working develop robust income streams. We are also looking to go beyond our capacity-building work and to support farmers in having more power in the commercial sphere, for instance through the formation of farmer producer organisations.

Ultimately, our desire is to see a cotton industry that supports thriving communities as well as a healthy planet. That’s why in the second half of 2022, we’ll also be unveiling four other stretch impact targets – two related to social and economic equity (namely, smallholder livelihoods and women’s empowerment) and two linked to climate mitigation/adaptation (soil health and pesticide use).

We know that warm words won’t bring about a cooler planet, which explains why we’ll be tracking progress every step of the way. More and better data means greater insights for farmers. It also helps us to better direct our own funding for field-level investments, as well as to attract finance from the burgeoning impact investment sector.

In the 7,000 years that humans have been using cotton, never have the stakes been higher. Our new strategy offers a step-change in how this ubiquitous material is made – and what its production means for the planet. 

Alan McClay is CEO of the Better Cotton initiative.

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