Cottoning on to better traceability

Sustainability is a real issue in cotton where supply chains are disconnected from its source. Improving standards for this important raw material is keeping many a retailer awake at night, but John Lewis is determined to take up the gauntlet, as Maxine Perella finds out

Building a more robust supply chain is an ongoing and often complex challenge for corporate sustainability managers. Resilience, transparency and values are the lynchpins that determine what can be measured and scored against, but to bring all three to the table unquestionably requires collaboration. And plenty of it.

For certain materials, such as wood and paper, the task is made easier as established industry standards and quality controls already exist around sourcing and manufacture. But for other materials, such as cotton, it’s a different ball game. Here there is little regulation or adopted best practice – in many cases, trying the trace the raw material back to its source proves impossible.

For a retailer like John Lewis selling a lot of homeware cotton-based products, it’s an imperative issue. The company’s head of product sourcing Sean Allam says that the nature of the commodity and the way it is traded around the world makes for some tough challenges.

“In cotton there isn’t an adopted traceability scheme. The cotton industry is dominated by China, India and the US and these countries haven’t collaborated. After wood and paper, the next biggest raw material that we influence heavily down the supply chain is cotton – we realised that we would only make some progress on sustainability if we could get back to the farmer,” he explains.

Last year, John Lewis embarked on a project with Cotton Connect, a social enterprise set up by the Shell Foundation to create more sustainable cotton supply chains. Cotton Connect works by co-ordinating the supply chain to ensure that the retailers it works with source all the cotton they need through better farming practices, while ensuring cotton farmers get a fair price for their crop.

The project, which will span over three years, is funded through the John Lewis Foundation to the tune of £180,000 and aims to recruit 1,500 farmers in total. The first year targeted farmers in Gujarat, a region in western India where they were shown how to employ smarter techniques around water irrigation, pesticide use and crop harvest. The initiative proved so successful that Allam says initial demand has outstripped supply.

“In just that one region we could have probably run the scheme 50% bigger because of demand. Recruitment for year two of the project as a consequence has been easy. One of the things we now have to consider over the next 12 months is do we move geographically to try and give farmers in a different region the same benefits, or do we stay in the same region and take it to another level.”

Impact assessment of initiatives like this is crucial which is why the project is running over three years. It will enable better measurement and evaluation which ultimately, will help inform thinking around supply chain management.

“The yield of cotton isn’t the main motivator for us, we are relatively relaxed about how much of it gets into our supply chain – that’s a side benefit. This isn’t about John Lewis trying to close loop its supply chain … we are just trying to raise the standard for all of the supply chain in the cotton industry,” Allam maintains.

As the project enters its second year, the impacts will become clearer but confidence is already high due to the level of recruitment and buy-in among the farmers and their families. “If the community didn’t support it, the project would have flopped quite fast,” Allam says.

In terms of actual material use, John Lewis has sourced 50 tonnes of the first 1,000 tonnes of cotton harvested from the initiative for one of its new bath mat lines. There are plans to broaden the material out into other products with trials underway, but for the retailer, it is important that stringent controls are applied.

“We’ve pumped a controllable amount through one supplier so we can be confident that what ends up in the product is actually what we affected at the other end,” says Allam. He adds that John Lewis hasn’t set any targets around sustainable sourcing of cotton because there are too many unknowns currently to contend with.

“Cotton ginners are not set up for traceability – they’ve got to be able to manage the product differently through their operations and that will take time. Before we set a target, we need to understand what can be realistically measured and achieved,” he argues.

Such an undertaking requires commitment and collective action from retailers, suppliers, manufacturers, producers – and the industry associations that represent them – in forging a common approach to responsible sourcing. Allan points out that until this is achieved, consumer engagement on the issue is somewhat thorny.

“Where you have industry standards, like you do in wood or paper, it is quite easy to reflect that to the customer. With cotton there is the BCI label which is a trade attempt to kite mark the product … but there is no common agreement yet on industry sustainable practice for it.”

For now, John Lewis is intent on driving the level of change needed through its supply chain to hike up sourcing standards. The learning from its project with Cotton Connect – especially over the next two years – will prove invaluable in building the knowledge and expertise required to influence this agenda in a meaningful way.

Maxine Perella

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