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How sustainable is sustainable cotton?

Today is World Cotton Day. H&M Group’s head of Environmental Sustainability, Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, shares her reflections on how we can move towards a more sustainable cotton industry.

7 Oct, 2019

There is an increasing demand of organic cotton. That is good! However, today, organic cotton accounts for less than one percent of the world’s cotton cultivation. And the possibilities to scale it up are unfortunately very limited. Therefore, to really make a difference, we must focus on scalable and realistic solutions that can push the whole industry in the right direction.

Cotton is a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre that we like to use in clothing, home textiles and furniture. The industry employs over 300 million people, but it is associated with certain challenges. Today, World Trade Organization and the UN are organizing World Cotton Day to highlight challenges and opportunities for cotton.

In addition to being a climate-intensive crop, the cotton plant is thirsty, and heavy water consumption is a feature not just of the growing phase, but later in the process, too. Pests also pose a major risk to cotton harvests, which is one of the reasons why synthetic pesticides are used, and sometimes overused. These chemicals have a negative impact on the soil and biodiversity, as well as creating health risks for the growers. Also, the use of chemicals is expensive, which makes it harder for growers to maintain a profitable business.

Forced labour and child labour are other risks. H&M Group has therefore banned cotton from Uzbekistan. Our suppliers have signed a commitment to not source Uzbek cotton on our behalf, but it does not limit them from sourcing Uzbek cotton for other brands, which means that there is a theoretical risk of Uzbek cotton ending up in our products.

With these challenges in mind, what is meant by more sustainable cotton? Many brands, including H&M Group, rely on the definition recommended by the global non-profit organisation Textile Exchange. This states that preferred cotton fibres from a sustainability perspective are either organic, recycled or from more sustainable cultivation associated, for example, with the Better Cotton Initiative. By 2020 all our cotton will be sourced in a more sustainable way.

Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, which leads to improved soil condition, lower greenhouse gas emissions, stronger biodiversity and better health among the cotton growers. None of the crop is genetically modified, it is all third-party certified and the fibre is kept separate from cotton field to finished product. H&M Group is one of the world’s biggest users of organic cotton.

However, maintaining a narrow focus on organic cotton could prevent the development of a more sustainable cotton industry. Organic cotton accounts for less than one percent of the world’s cotton cultivation, making it currently only a minor, niche business, with no scope to scale it up at the rate and to the extent that is required to make an impact on the cotton industry as a whole. Organic cotton often yields smaller harvests and requires more land than conventional methods, while certification costs are also high. In addition, there is a shortage of quality seeds suitable for organic cotton. The industry initiative Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) is working to find solutions to these challenges.

Several brands also source cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a non-profit organisation that helps cotton growers to embrace more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable farming methods. By the end of next year, BCI aims to have supported five million cotton growers in switching to smarter growing techniques, which amounts to 30 percent of global cotton production. Since the approach is scalable and holistic, BCI is one of the biggest contributors to sustainable cotton growing globally. Getting five million cotton growers around the world to optimise their use of synthetic pesticides have a greater impact than a few cotton growers phasing out pesticides entirely. In this way, through our investment in BCI, customers can feel confident that they are supporting a more responsible cotton production.

To make the cotton industry as a whole more sustainable we suggest the following:

Make sustainable cotton more sustainable

There is no point in pitting different cotton standards against each other – there is both room and a need for them if the cotton industry is to be improved, but they need to be made stronger. This requires commitment from the brands, organisations and cotton producers. It also needs to be made more profitable for growers to switch to more sustainable farming methods. The use of more regenerative farming methods needs to increase, while the opposite applies to the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, water and energy.

Listen to the cotton growers

There is a need for reliable information about what environmental and social impact different types of cotton have, but this is only one piece of a complex puzzle that needs to be resolved. It is equally important, we believe, to listen to what the individual cotton growers feel they need in order to bring change to their everyday life and their cotton fields.

Commercialise recycling technologies and find alternatives to cotton

Besides several positive initiatives, we need to see a greater transition to recycled materials and to fibres with less of a negative impact on people and the environment. This requires both the upscaling of existing recycling technology and new technical solutions that facilitate material recovery on a larger scale, without jeopardising quality.

Track cotton from field to factory

Some of the standards are linked to a mass balance system, where the cotton is not kept separate from other types of cotton on its journey from field to factory. It is similar to the way, when you buy renewable electricity today, you are contributing to cleaner energy production rather than ensuring that a specific kind of electricity comes out of your power sockets. What the brands are able to guarantee, for example with regard to BCI cotton, is that the amount of cotton needed for their production is sourced by their suppliers, but not that this specific cotton will be in their finished products. The cotton that H&M asks its suppliers to order is therefore just as likely to end up in a garment from another brand. From a sustainability perspective, this doesn’t matter – the important thing is that the improvements take place in the cotton fields, for the sake of the farmers and the local environment, not that particular cotton ends up in a particular product – but this undeniably makes it more difficult for customers to make well-informed decisions about their purchases. However, greater traceability can’t be introduced at the cost of greater availability and faster upscaling of more sustainable cotton, which the mass balance system makes possible.

Cotton that is defined as more sustainable is, without doubt, much more sustainable than the conventional alternatives, and the fact that an increasing number of brands are sourcing this cotton is a positive development. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can sit back and relax. Going forward, we need to keep looking for solutions that bring further improvements for both cotton growers and the environment, while also enabling consumers to make informed choices.

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