A Better Way to Make Cotton Better

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.

Another important challenge is traceability. Apparel brands are typically three or four steps removed from the cotton growing process. Retailers don't grow cotton or buy cotton directly from farmers; nor do they typically buy yarn or fabric. The apparel industry has struggled for years to find a way to track cotton from farm to gin to better understand the labor and environmental practices associated with each farm.

There can be more than six changes of ownership between when cotton is harvested and when finished products actually arrive in stores. We're focused on a reliable way to trace Better Cotton. Each bale of Better Cotton has a traceable identification number to ensure that sustainable cotton is being incorporated into our products. That said, more still needs to be done to ensure traceability as the bale of raw cotton transforms into a finished product.

Despite the challenges, global apparel companies have a huge opportunity to use their sphere of influence to enact positive change in the supply chain. For example, Levi Strauss & Co. has hosted meetings in India, China and the Americas with mills and spinners to introduce Better Cotton and share why this is such an important initiative for us. These same mills and spinners later demonstrated their commitment by bringing us fabrics that incorporated Better Cotton.

For companies like Levi Strauss & Co., which uses cotton in 95 percent of its products, having a sustainable -- and affordable -- source of cotton is an important element for long-term business growth.

The initial results from the Better Cotton pilot sites are promising. In Pakistan, local farmers using Better Cotton farming methods reduced pesticide and water use by an average of 32 percent, and saw increases in their net profits by up to 69 percent.

Changing how a commodity is grown -- without raising prices -- is a daunting goal. And we still have challenges to overcome to make it a reality. But we are making progress. This year, Levi Strauss & Co. is using a blend of Better Cotton in over two million pairs of jeans.

We're working with other leading brands like H&M, IKEA, Adidas and Marks & Spencer, NGOs like WWF, Solidaridad, and PAN-UK, as well as farmer organizations, cotton traders and mills to make Better Cotton a global reality.

We strongly believe that Better Cotton farming techniques are the long-term solution -- they're better for farmers, better for companies that sell textiles and clothing, and better for the environment. Together, we can truly make cotton "better."

Cotton photo via Shutterstock.