A Better Way to Make Cotton Better

As global cotton prices continue to fluctuate significantly, and the effects of climate change threaten the 300 million people engaged in cotton farming around the world, a small group of companies is trying to change how one of the world's largest commodities is grown. Mounted against a web of complexities, the Better Cotton Initiative is taking innovative steps to make cotton more sustainable -- without raising costs.

Cotton is the heart and soul of the apparel industry, and the crop is facing challenges. Every day, cotton farmers face the harsh consequences of rising temperatures, drought, flooding, and pest infestation. Extreme weather is destroying entire crops, which not only hurts the cotton supply, but is also devastating farmers, their families and local economies. Precious natural resources like water are used to keep the cotton fields thriving, and farmers are using expensive chemicals to fertilize the soil and prevent pest infestation.

We need a new solution.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is addressing these critical issues in an effort to make cotton grown around the world more sustainable. BCI is trying to fundamentally shift how cotton is grown by focusing on three objectives:

  1. decreasing the environmental impact of cotton
  2. improving labor standards
  3. increasing the economic livelihood for farmers

BCI's approach is simple. The collaboration works with local organizations on the ground to train cotton farmers about better farming practices, such as integrated pest management, planting border crops and setting up more efficient irrigation systems. Farmers are educated about labor issues, including the devastating effects of child labor. NGOs on the ground work to leverage local customs.

For example, in India, local leaders create songs about BCI farming methods to spread these ideas through their villages, a technique that has been used for generations to pass down important oral histories.

One major hurdle is figuring out how to make Better Cotton mainstream without raising prices. Other commodity programs, such as sugar, coffee and cocoa, have required "certifications" for participants and the result is premium products that are out of reach for most consumers.

BCI's main goal is to make sure Better Cotton products become mainstream, not an expensive, niche commodity. That's why BCI is asking all of its partners not to label products as "Better Cotton" during this start-up phase.