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How companies can source cotton more sustainably

Natural and renewable, it’s a popular choice for brands and consumers looking to make more sustainable fabric choices, but cotton comes with its fair share of social and environmental risks.

In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. The entire series may be found here.

Cotton is one of the most frequently used materials in the apparel and textiles industry, accounting for a quarter of global fiber production. Natural and renewable, it’s a popular choice for brands and consumers looking to make more sustainable fabric choices — but cotton comes with its fair share of social and environmental risks. 

For one, cotton production requires lots of water and can be chemically intensive, with pesticides that contaminate soil and groundwater and affect farmers’ health. Synthetic fertilizers are often used to boost production, as are growth regulators and defoliants. When combined with irrigation systems, these agrichemicals can have negative effects on water supplies, natural ecosystems and biodiversity, impacting local landscapes and communities.

As an organization, Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that have a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Our 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge considers cotton variations from 15 organic and sustainable cotton initiatives to be "preferred" and moving the textile industry in the right direction. These initiatives include:

  • Organic cotton, which is certified to organic agricultural standards and prohibits the use of toxic chemicals or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

  • Recycled cotton, which is made from either pre- or post-consumer waste

  • Fairtrade cotton, which supports small-scale farmers by guaranteeing a fair minimum price for their cotton

  • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which sets out to improve the sustainability of mainstream cotton production

  • REEL Cotton, which trains farmers in more sustainable cotton farming practices

  • Cotton made in Africa, which helps smallholder cotton farmers in Africa to improve their living conditions

Cotton plant

How can companies level up their cotton sourcing strategy?

Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy.

There are some key activities that top performers in the cotton category have in common. These should serve as inspiration for companies looking to push their preferred cotton programs to the next level. Textile Exchange also will be sharing a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.

1. Equip buying teams

Supply chains are complex, and there can be a lot of layers between a company's internal teams and the cotton farm. However, there is value in getting to know suppliers as far upstream as companies are able to manage.

When buying and production teams get to know aggregators or suppliers, it can lead to better buy-in for sourcing sustainably. Companies also may be able to leverage long-term relationships to influence those upstream suppliers’ purchase agreements with farms.

Material change in action: Ten years ago, Swedish fashion chain Lindex set a target to buy 1 million pieces in organic cotton. It has been working towards ensuring that by 2020, 100 percent of its cotton should come from more sustainable sources, such as organic, recycled or BCI cotton.

To meet this goal, Lindex started working directly with yarn and fabric suppliers and committed to long-term business relationships. It also began engaging more heavily with its buying and production teams.

"We looked at where in our organization decisions are being made in order to scale the buying of sustainable material and in particular organic cotton," explained Anna-Karin Dahlberg, corporate sustainability manager at Lindex. "Create a strong engagement in the organization by explaining the purpose of converting to more sustainable materials. The why is very important."

Lindex cotton farmer

2. Go beyond certified organic

Many companies look at certified materials as a way to begin sourcing more sustainably — for example, cotton certified against the Organic Content Standard (OCS), which provides a chain of custody from the organic farm certification to end product, or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which guarantees that organic textiles were processed sustainably from both a social and environmental perspective. 

However, demand for organic cotton is outstripping the available supply. Therefore, some brands are choosing to supplement their purchasing of certified materials by investing in cotton programs that can scale more quickly and incentivize farmers to implement more sustainable practices from the get-go.

This might mean purchasing transitional cotton (produced by farmers moving from conventional to certified organic techniques), cotton grown using regenerative techniques (farming methods that improve surrounding ecosystems over time), cotton sourced through the Fairtrade Sourced Cotton model (which means some but not all cotton is Fairtrade-certified) or cotton from the REEL Cotton Program.

Material change in action: Fashion brand Eileen Fisher began sourcing organic cotton in 2004 and since has been able to convert almost all its cotton-based fabrics and yarns to certified organic. Additionally, the brand has supported its partner farms in their transition to organic cotton, such as Alvarez Farms in New Mexico, which supplies Eileen Fisher with extra-long stable organic cotton fiber.

Owner Dosi Alvarez had been farming organically for over 20 years, and when he acquired additional non-organic land a few years ago, Eileen Fisher supported the land’s transition by committing to purchase the so-called "transitional" cotton.

"We will never increase the amount of organic cotton available unless we support farmers during the three-year conversion period," said Megan Meiklejohn, sustainable materials and transparency manager at Eileen Fisher. "Farmers need training, financial support and a buyer. My advice is to first focus on transparency by identifying a farmer or a farm network to support in their transition from conventional to organic farming."

Eileen Fisher, field

3. Work directly with farming communities

Cotton commodity trading can hurt farmers financially, so one of the most meaningful ways to make an impact is for brands to meaningfully deepen their engagement with farmers.

Companies can demonstrate their commitment by visiting the farms from which they source to understand specific farmer needs or explore sourcing directly from farmers where possible. When working directly with farmers, it can be helpful to build partnerships with other buyers to aggregate demand or share buying plans with farmers — the more demand signaling that can be done upfront, the better farmers can prepare to respond to it.

Material change in action: The sustainability conversation started in 2005 at lifestyle brand Volcom, although it didn’t call it that at the time. "We were simply just learning about the environmental benefits of organic cotton, recycled PET and hemp, and we liked what we were hearing," recalled Derek Sabori, sustainability advisor at Volcom.

Its program has evolved over time and now includes a signature program called Farm to Yarn, a partnership with CottonConnect that traces certified organic cotton back to farms in India and provides social and professional education programs for farmers and the women in their surrounding villages.

Sabori credits the program's success to mutual commitment within Volcom and with its manufacturers and partner farms. "We’ve had to undo the way that business was done — unravel our supply chain, as we like to say. This took time and constant discussion, constant commitment, and it wasn’t always the easy way," he said. "Long-standing relationships with manufacturing partners have made our transition to programs like Farm to Yarn much easier than they might have been. This is because we have built trust and solid relationships that have helped as we transitioned to this and other programs. Patience and commitment (on both sides) have been crucial to making the program a success."

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