The annual study by WWF, Pesticide Action Network an Solidaridad has compared the performance of 75 of the largest cotton-using companies across areas including policy, uptake and traceability.

While proportionately more companies have sourcing commitments than in 2016, the report shows that only 11 have set targets to source 100% sustainable cotton by 2020 or earlier and overall uptake of sustainable cotton remains relatively low.

“There are still too many companies doing little or nothing about sustainable cotton”, said Solidaridad global cotton programme manager Isabelle Roger. “Public commitments by CEOs to sourcing are critical to sector change and making sustainable cotton the norm.”

Slow progress

Cotton is a key raw material for the textile industry and represents around 30% of all fibre used in the sector. But the environmental impacts of production can be vast, with challenges surrounding child labour, farmer debt, and excessive pesticide and water use. Indeed, around 10,000 litres of water is needed to produce a single pair of jeans.

Between 12-15% of cotton is grown sustainably, yet only around a fifth of this is actively sourced by companies as sustainable. Major brands and retailers cite low customer demand, complexity of supply chains and additional cost as blocks to sourcing. Campaigners are calling on failing companies to set time-bound targets to source 100% sustainable cotton and report publicly on progress to stakeholders.

WWF’s report highlights that sustainability efforts are driven by five companies ‘leading the way’. These include IKEA, H&M, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Tchibo GmbH and C&A, the latter of which has convened a new cross-industry initiative – Cotton 2040 – aimed at turning sustainable cotton into a mainstream commodity.

H&M, C&A and IKEA all increased uptake of sustainable cotton by around 20% in 2017, and also improved traceability by expanding their public lists of suppliers. Meanwhile, M&S recently introduced new men’s jeans produced using five time less water than conventional methods, as well as having a reduced energy and chemical footprints.

“There is no reason why all large companies can’t match C&A Group, H&M, M&S, Tchibo GmbH and IKEA on cotton sustainability”, said WWF director, strategy and operations Richard Holland.

“There is now lots of information, experience and advice about sourcing more sustainable cotton available through credible programmes such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).”

Stitching sustainability

Previous research from WWF found that pursuing sustainable cotton could help businesses contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and unlock new market opportunities by using credible voluntary sustainability standards.

A growing focus on sustainable procurement from textile companies such as ASOS, Aldi and Jack & Jones has helped the largest label for sustainable cotton from Africa increase licensing revenues by 47% over the last 12 months.

Earlier this year, Primark highlighted how serious it is taking its own sustainable cotton initiative. The retailer announced that a range of sixteen different women’s pyjamas had gone on sale, all of which are using cotton from the Sustainable Cotton Programme.

George Ogleby

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