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IKEA meets aggressive better cotton pledge. What’s next?

Brands from Adidas to Nike are cottoning to sustainable sourcing. Can 30 percent of the world's supply meet Better Cotton Initiative standards?

You may not think of IKEA as a huge consumer of cotton, but the Scandinavian furniture seller uses 0.7 percent of the world’s supply for items such as sofa, upholstery and towels. That makes its sourcing milestone disclosed in September all the more significant: IKEA now buys all of its cotton from famers working in collaboration with the Better Cotton Initiative.

BCI was created 10 years ago by several non-governmental organizations along with IKEA and other notable apparel makers such as Adidas, Gap and H&M. Its mission is to encourage sustainable growing practices that rely on less water, less fertilizers and less pesticides, among other things.

IKEA’s commitment to sourcing 100 percent of its cotton from BCI sources by 2015 was the most aggressive among the original members. That was by design. "If we had not set the 100 percent target, it actually would have been hard to get this change to happen," said Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for IKEA. "If you set a partial target, everyone thinks they can be the exception."

Cotton was, by far, the commodity contributing most negatively to IKEA’s overall carbon footprint, according to Howard. The world’s largest home furnishing company sources most of its cotton from India, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Brazil and the United States. About 5 percent of the supply comes from U.S. sources, according to IKEA data.

Cotton was, by far, the commodity contributing most negatively to IKEA’s overall carbon footprint.

Howard credits years of grassroots advocacy and education for helping IKEA’s primary cotton farmers embrace growing practices that honor the Better Cotton Standard. Some are realizing reductions in water and fertilizer usage of up to 50 percent. At the same time, yields for many have increased by 5 percent to 15 percent, Howard said. 

IKEA worked closely with supply-chain partners to reach individual farmers. At the same time, it issued a top-down mandate to switch procurement to sustainable cotton sources over time — ensuring that sustainable growers had a market for their product. "This wasn’t just one company; this was a movement," Howard said, noting that the response was particularly positive in South Asia.

Reaching its procurement goal doesn’t mean IKEA will stop paying attention to more sustainable cotton production. "This is just a milestone on the journey. We will push for a better, better cotton," Howard said.

For one thing, IKEA continues to prioritize saving water. In particular, it advocates drip irrigation techniques because they cut down on the amount of water that is sprayed onto soil where no crops are planted.

This wasn’t just one company; this was a movement.

IKEA also intends to diversify the sorts of fibers it uses for textiles, both through recycling of previously used material and by increasing the ways in which it uses hemp and flax, Howard said.

According to BCI, more than 25 million tonnes of cotton are produced annually. As of last year, about 7.6 percent of that amount was produced using farming methods that met the Better Cotton Standard. As of 2014 more than 1.2 million small farming operations have embraced the initiative in 20 countries, which was ahead of schedule. By 2020, the target is 30 percent of global production and 5 million farmers.

Here are the current goals for five other high-profile apparel makers that have committed to sourcing cotton from more sustainable sources, along with information about their current progress (where available):

  • Adidas Group – 100 percent by 2018; in 2014, the athletic apparel company sourced about 30 percent of its cotton fiber using BCI source, ahead of its goal
  • H&M – 100 percent by 2020; as of 2014, 21.2 percent of the cotton in products sold by the Swedish clothing retailer were organic, recycled or grown via BCI production methods
  • Levi Strauss & Co. — 75 percent by 2020; as of April, the denim giant had reached 6 percent
  • Marks & Spencer — 70 percent by 2020; as of its last updatethe British retailer said one-third of its cotton comes from BCI, organic, recycle or Fair Trade sources
  • Nike – 100 percent by 2020; as of a 2014 update, the icon sneaker maker said it may take longer to transition its cotton sources than anticipated

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