Tackling fashion’s cotton conundrum

Cotton production (4)

Soft and breathable, cotton is one of shoppers’ favourite fabrics. But it is a labour-intensive crop that takes a toil on its environment and the people who grow it. Drapers explores what makes a successful sustainable cotton strategy.

Earlier this spring, Primark unveiled its first collection of jeans made entirely from sustainable cotton. The budget retailer is moving towards using sustainably sourced cotton across its product ranges and is far from alone in its pledge to clean up cotton.

Popular among customers for its breathability and strength, producing conventional cotton comes with a host of environmental and social challenges. These include the impact of pesticides on both the environment and farmers, intense water usage and the risk of forced labour. But a wave of retailers have made ambitious sustainability promises over recent months when it comes to fashion’s favourite crop.

Asda’s fashion brand, George, pledged to source sustainable cotton only from 2025; H&M group’s Monki has used 100% sustainable cotton since autumn 18. High street giant Marks & Spencer met its self-imposed target of using 100% sustainable cotton in its products in March, and sportswear giant Adidas used 100% sustainably sourced cotton in its products for the first time in 2018.

A record number of fashion brands – including Adidas and the H&M group – sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative last year, up 45% on 2017. The Better Cotton Initiative, which works with farmers across 21 countries, focuses on reducing the environmental impact of cotton production and improving the livelihoods of cotton farmers. It also aims to make more sustainable cotton a mainstream commodity.

No easy answers

“The issues when it comes to cotton are complex – if there were simple answers, they’d have already been found,” says Charlene Collison, is associate director for sustainable value chains and livelihoods at sustainability non-profit organisation Forum for the Future. She also leads its Cotton 2040 project, which aims to accelerate the adoption of sustainably grown cotton.

“Cotton is such a huge commodity,” Collison explains. “The land used around the world for cotton production is significant, and the livelihood of millions of farmers depends on cotton. Depending on how and where it is grown, cotton often comes with significant environmental and social problems, including high use of pesticides.”

Although the fashion industry is moving in the right direction when it comes to beating these challenges with sustainable cotton strategies, there is still plenty of work to be done. One potential hurdle for retailers and brands seeking to take a more sustainable approach to the crop is assessing which of several different cotton standards – including BCI, Fairtrade and organic – is best.

“Which standard to use is a highly charged question – they are all different and have different focal areas,” Collison continues. “What makes it difficult to measure the environmental and social impact of the standards is that they don’t have common impact indicators. If you want to see how each of the standards level out when it comes to pesticide use or insecticide use or water use, there’s not a benchmark across them. One of the things Cotton 2040 is working on is creating more alignment and making the standards comparable, because currently they aren’t.”

Those blazing a trail when it comes to sustainable cotton are focusing on a multi-pronged approach, she adds: “What we see is that the brands and retailers leading in this area and setting the bar with their cotton strategies are sourcing across multiple standards.”

When you’re trying to change a system, you must start from the beginning of the supply chain and work up

Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, Bestseller

Danish brand house Bestseller, which operates labels including Vera Moda, Only and Selected, is doing exactly that. It has pledged to source 100% of its cotton from more sustainable alternatives to conventional cotton by 2022, and to use 30% organic cotton within that by 2025. It has also committed to facilitating the development of more sustainable fibres and materials at market scale by 2025.

“It is important for us to develop a diverse sustainable cotton strategy,” explains Bestseller sustainable materials manager Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen. “We support different initiatives and see them as complementary – hence why we have two goals: one for more sustainable cotton at scale, such as the Better Cotton Initiative, and one specially for organic cotton. We think it is important to support organic farming, because it is still a limited source. It takes a few years to convert a conventional cotton field [to meet organic cotton standards].”

Selected autumn 19

Selected autumn 19 – denim made with 100% organic cotton

Price and availability remain some of the barriers facing retailers when it comes to sourcing sustainable cotton, she adds: “When you’re trying to change a system, you must start from the beginning of the supply chain and work up, so we have to make sure our due diligence is in place and that we are working with suppliers we can trust. Working with a certified system can also make the supply chain more complicated, which makes it less agile and fast. There is also a premium linked to organic cotton and to the certification and segregation that organic cotton requires. It can therefore be expensive to use certified fibres such as organic cotton.”

As organic cotton campaign group Cottoned On puts it, “The price for organic includes investments made by farmers who are protecting the environment, maintaining soil fertility, preserving biodiversity and conserving water”, so it is “sometimes, but not always” more expensive.

Bestseller also uses recycled cotton as part of its sustainability strategy, although there are other challenges for retailers to consider with reused materials, says Skjønning Jørgensen: “Recycled cotton currently produces a relatively short fibre, which needs to be blended with virgin cotton to create a quality product for the consumer. There’s no point delivering a low-quality sustainable product because there’s no longevity and that in itself is not sustainable.”

British brand The Cotton Story, which launched last year, chooses to use Supima cotton, a premium fibre grown in the US, to make its range as sustainable as possible.

“We wanted to make sure the product we made were going to be as long lasting as possible to reduce waste and the need to purchase new clothing so often,” brand director Fiona Webborn tells Drapers. “Supima cotton is an extra-long fibre that creates a really soft but durable cotton to create a long-lasting product. It has become evident very quickly that customers do care about where their cotton is coming from.”

The next steps

Poor oversight across complex global supply chains can be another barrier to retailers adopting more sustainable cotton.

“Retailers’ systems can be opaque, and having a full view of the supply chain is a challenge. Not understanding where garments are coming from is a systemic problem that takes time and money to solve and fashion works on a very quick turnover,” explains Sarah Compson, international development manager of the farming charity and organic food certification body, the Soil Association. “The first thing those looking to source cotton more sustainably can do is get to know their supply chains better. It can also be a challenge of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – brands need to be committed to long-term changes. This issue is not simple, but there are projects and initiatives out there to help.”

What we now need is for the second wave of leaders to start making their first sustainable cotton commitments

Eva Benavidez Clayton, Better Cotton Initiative

Eva Benavidez Clayton, senior communications manager at the Better Cotton Initiative, agrees that stakeholders from across a business must be engaged to make more sustainable cotton sourcing strategies successful: “Internal sustainability teams might be very sold on creating a more sustainable cotton strategy, but might struggle to sell it across a retailer – it needs to be embraced by buyers and integrated into wider sourcing strategies.”

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She adds that the industry needs a fresh generation of retailers to step up to the plate: “Retailers and brands already on board – including H&M, M&S and Adidas – have made 100% sustainable cotton targets. What we now need is for the second wave of leaders to start making their first sustainable cotton commitments.”

The industry is also working to find alternatives to cotton. Austrian fibre giant Lenzing upcycles cotton scraps in combination with lyocell from wood pulp in a closed-loop process. Finnish researchers at Aalto University are currently developing another potential alternative, Ioncell, a soft, strong fibre made by converting cellulose into fibres. The fibre is slated for commercial production in 2025, but it has yet to be seen whether it can be scaled.

Brands and retailers alike will have to make sense of competing cotton standards, and embrace new materials and ways of working, if they hope to make sustainable cotton part of their identity.