New rankings show boost in demand for sustainable cotton as Adidas claims the top spot

A row of shoes in a Moscow store.
A row of shoes in a Moscow store.

Dozens of global firms have made substantial progress in their sourcing of sustainable cotton, the latest sustainable cotton rankings have confirmed, providing evidence more businesses are acting to ameliorate the fashion industry's contribution to water scarcity, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

But at the same time the new rankings confirm that a significant number of firms are still doing nothing to tackle the environmental impact of their cotton demand.

German giant Adidas claimed first place in the global league table, rising from sixth to first place since the rankings were last published in 2017.

The sports firm knocks Ikea off the top spot, with the Swedish home goods firm slipping to second place. H&M ranks third, while Marks & Spencer is the best U.K. performer at No. 6.

The rankings published just ahead of London Fashion Week by a coalition of three NGOs: Pesticide Action Network UK; Solidaridad; and WWF. The results are based on research conducted by the independent consultancy Aidenvironment, which assessed 77 cotton-using companies — estimated to represent more than 10,000 metric tons of cotton demand annually — on their public policies and commitments, how much of the cotton they use is from certified sustainable sources, and how open they are with their supply chain traceability.

Substantial progress has been made by a number of firms, exemplified by companies such as Bestseller and Decathlon, which in 2017 were ranked as "starting the journey," but are now classified as "leading the way." Almost all companies who made public commitments have made substantial improvements, the rankings show, revealing that, for the first time, more than half of ranked companies have commitments to use sustainable cotton. Moreover, 11 big brands, including Nike, H&M and C&A Group, have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their cotton from more sustainable sources by the end of this year. The group includes IKEA, Adidas and Marks & Spencer, who are aiming to maintain their existing 100 percent sustainable sourcing track records.

"As the U.K.'s biggest clothing retailer we source around 50,000 tonnes of the material each year," said M&S's head of sustainable business Carmel McQuaid. "Cotton is used in around half our Clothing & Home products so it's so important to us that it has been produced in the right way — with respect for the environment and the people that grow and pick it. We're proud to work with WWF, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and others to support more sustainable cotton practices. It's something we've been working on for over 10 years and will remain a focus for M&S as we continue to ensure 100 percent of the cotton for our clothing is more sustainably sourced."

However, the bottom third of companies in the rankings all scored zero, including global giants such as Amazon, Footlocker, Giorgio Armani and Max Mara.

"Leading British companies are showing international leadership on sourcing cotton that doesn't damage the environment — but the gap between the best and the rest is simply not good enough," said Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF-UK. "More companies must choose to step up to their responsibilities and make concrete commitments to use more sustainable cotton — because in 2020, consumers know more and demand more from their favorite brands."

The research also found a lack of demand means that 75 percent of certified sustainable cotton currently gets sold as conventional cotton. While 21 percent of global production is more sustainable, only 5 percent of total global production is actively bought as sustainable by retailers and brands. The rest has to be sold as conventional cotton, the research found, as there is not sufficient demand for specifically sustainable products.

"Farmer groups end up selling the majority of their more sustainable produce as conventional cotton, due to lack of demand. If the failing brands took their responsibilities seriously, this wouldn't be an issue," explained Isabelle Roger, global cotton program manager at Solidaridad Network.

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