Cotton is a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre, popular in clothing, home textiles and furniture. But it’s also linked to negative impacts on the people and the environment, it’s a climate intensive crop related to high water and chemical use, that affects both soil and biodiversity and the people working in the cotton fields.
H&M Group relies on the definition of more sustainable cotton fibres recommended by the global non-profit organisation Textile Exchange. And with more sustainable cotton fibres we mean either organic, recycled or cotton sourced through, for example, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton Made in Africa and Fair Trade Cotton.
Today, many brands are moving from conventional cotton to recycled cotton, organic cotton or cotton sourced through the BCI. Cotton defined as more sustainable is, without doubt, better than the conventional alternatives, and the fact that an increasing number of brands are sourcing it is a positive development.
Every time a customer — at any of the brands within the group — buy a product made of cotton, they can also feel confident that they are supporting more responsible cotton production, thanks to our 2020 goal and our investment in the BCI. 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.
Cotton sourced through the Better Cotton Initiative
Several brands also source cotton associated with the BCI, a non-profit organisation that helps cotton growers to embrace environmentally friendlier, and socially and economically sustainable, farming methods. By the end of 2020, the BCI aims to have supported five million cotton growers in switching to smarter growing techniques, which amounts to 30 % of global cotton production. Since the approach is scalable and holistic, the BCI is one of the biggest contributors to better cotton-growing — getting five million cotton growers around the world to optimise their use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are likely to have a really big impact.
Read more about Better Cotton and the BCI at bettercotton.org.
The mass-balance system
The BCI is linked to a mass-balance system, where the cotton isn’t kept separate from other types of cotton on its journey from the field to the final product. It’s similar to when you buy renewable electricity; you are contributing to cleaner energy production rather than ensuring that a specific kind of electricity comes out of your power sockets. The cotton that H&M, for instance, asks its suppliers to order, is just as likely to end up in a garment from another brand. What the brands can guarantee though, is that the amount of cotton needed for their production is sourced and purchased by the suppliers, not that this specific cotton will end up in their specific products.
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 brand’s products.
Put simply, the mass-balance system encourages suppliers to buy and use more Better Cotton, as it does not require complexities that result in costly physical segregation along the supply chain.
According to the Textile Exchange, H&M Group is the second biggest user of organic cotton in the world. 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. Organic cotton also means 62 % less energy and 71 % less water usage on average compared to the sourcing of traditional cotton. Of the virgin cotton alternatives, organic cotton has shown the lowest environmental impacts due to non-use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and the soil quality is controlled by crop rotation.
None of these crops is genetically modified, it’s always third-party certified, and the fibre is kept separate from the cotton field to the finished product.
However, maintaining a too narrow focus on organic cotton could prevent the development of a more sustainable cotton industry. Organic cotton accounts for less than one per cent of the world’s cotton cultivation, making it currently only a minor 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 yields smaller harvests and requires more land than conventional methods, while certification costs are also high. Even though it may seem complicated to scale the sourcing of organic cotton we want to improve it, which is why we are one of the founding members of the industry initiative Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA). The OCA is working to further strengthen the supply, demand and integrity of organic cotton.
According to the Textile Exchange, H&M Group is the second biggest user of recycled cotton in the world. Recycled materials are a win-win; they stop waste material from going to landfill and reduce the use of virgin raw materials (as well as chemicals, energy and water used to make them).
Recycled cotton is cotton made from textile remnants in production, or from post-consumer textile waste from collected garments, such as garment collecting initiatives at H&M Group’s brands. These are mechanically recycled, ground into fibres, spun into new yarns and made into new fabrics. Technological challenges usually don’t allow for more than 20-30 % of recycled cotton from post-consumer waste without quality loss, but it also depends on waste source and style. Having said that, we are investing in new technologies to overcome this challenge and we want to increase the share of recycled materials and alternatives to cotton.