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LONDON – For the past decade, hundreds of brands and retailers have used the amount of ‘sustainable’ cotton they source annually as one of their prime sustainability marketing and PR tools. Leading the charge in this area has been an organisation which has established what has become by far the world’s largest cotton standard – the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

Perhaps more than any other organisation, the BCI has turned the notion of sustainability in textiles and apparel into a public relations exercise, adopting a marketing-led approach to this issue. With the provision of data to support its claims almost an after-thought, we’d liken this to a tail-wagging-the-dog approach to cotton sustainability.

BCI’s message for years has been unwavering – scaling sustainability. While the organic cotton sector has struggled to command around 1 per cent or so of global cotton production – a figure which has remained relatively stable over several decades – BCI has scaled rapidly. In its 2019 report, launched summer just gone, BCI announced that cotton produced by licensed BCI Farmers in line with the initiative’s Better Cotton Principles and Criteria now accounts for 22 per cent of global cotton production.

This has enabled brands such as H&M, Gap and IKEA to tell their customers they are hitting ambitious sustainable cotton targets. But given the paucity of data to support BCI’s claims, these claims amount to greenwash – no more.

How has BCI grown so rapidly? The answer is mass-balance, the pragmatic supply chain methodology which underpins the work of BCI. Essentially, mass-balance is about ensuring increasing amounts of Better Cotton are ordered and produced, regardless of where the cotton ends up.

Thus, if a retailer places an order for finished garments, such as T-shirts, and requests one metric tonne of Better Cotton be associated with this order, a cotton farmer somewhere must produce one metric tonne of cotton to the Better Cotton Standard.

This cotton is then registered on BCI’s supply chain system, and credits — known as ‘Better Cotton Claim Units’ — for the order are passed through the supply chain for that same weight in cotton, from one factory to the next. What comes out is the equivalent amount of cotton that the farmer produced as Better Cotton, but this has been mixed in with conventional cotton in its journey from field to product.

Using this system means supply chain actors avoid the costly physical segregation of cotton along the complex cotton supply chain.

In 2018, BCI chief Alan McClay told Apparel Insider: “Physically tracing Better Cotton through the supply chain is time consuming and expensive, but more importantly, it is not necessary for us to meet our primary objectives.”

And we know what these objectives are growth. And more growth.

Several brands and retailers I’ve spoken to over the years have expressed reservations about mass balance, but clearly they have managed to put these aside if BCI’s consistent growth is anything to go by. More and more retailers have signed up to BCI as it allows them to easily and conveniently virtue signal their ‘sustainable’ cotton credentials. And – unlike with organic cotton – there are no major supply chain issues with Better Cotton, thanks to use of mass balance.

But what if the same system that facilitates this growth is also its Achilles Heel? What if mass balance is too cumbersome a tool to allow BCI to meet its own criteria – particularly those relating to the use of forced labour?

Last week we published a story based on a report conducted by an independent taskforce into BCI. The taskforce, which included representation from Nike, Marks and Spencer and adidas, reviewed BCI’s procedures in the wake of its experiences in Xinjiang, where it was found to have been using an implementing partner – XPCC – with ties to forced labour.

It concluded that BCI has “organisational blindness” when it comes to forced labour and does not have a systematic approach to assess forced labour or decent work risk – despite citing the promotion of decent work as a core objective.

Why is the BCI blind on forced labour issues? The report appears to put the blame fairly and squarely at the door of use of mass balance.

The authors note, “a mass balance system (where conventional cotton can be substituted for Better Cotton after the gin) — poses a high risk for brands and retailers.”

It adds: “… while the Task Force recommends that BCI takes steps towards developing a physical segregation chain of custody system, it is critical that brands and retailers are intimately involved in that process, and have a full understanding of the costs, implications, and limitations of BCI developing such a system.”

And here’s the crunch line: “In relation to the mass balance system (or any other chain of custody used for Better Cotton in the future), BCI needs to continue to ensure that claims that its members can make, in particular in relation to decent work, are credible.”

Are the claims currently being made by brands in relation to decent work credible for those brands sourcing Better Cotton given that the use of the mass balance system is still in place? Based on the logic outlined above, the short answer would appear to be no.

Without mass balance, it’s clear the BCI cannot grow at anything like the scale it would like and this, potentially, means its brand members will not be able to hit their Better Cotton sourcing targets (and, in turn, their sustainable cotton targets). Given that that hitting these targets is the PR ‘sell’ for brands, it’s clear that the world’s largest cotton standard is facing a serious conundrum. Stick with mass balance and face accusations of being blind to forced labour; move away from it and scaling becomes much more difficult.

But this issue goes further than the BCI. For years, brands and retailers have gained cheap PR on the back of their use of ‘sustainable’ cotton, which in the vast majority of cases is completely unwarranted. As we have shown already, there is no evidence to support these claims. Moreover, such claims completely disregard the credentials of Australian and US cotton farmers, while also creating confusion among consumers.

Consumers deserve better than to be hoodwinked into buying clothing on the back of unsubstantiated claims and greenwash.

If the BCI moves away from mass balance – and we still don’t know whether they will because they have been stonewalling our questions for several months – the amount of ‘sustainable’ cotton in the market will plummet. Brands and retailers will miss their targets in this area and the whole model – which is based on marketing not merit – will come crashing down.

This might actually be the one huge positive to come out of all this, for it might force brands to start doing some real, meaningful work for their positive PR instead of handing over money to a third party so they can make bogus sustainable cotton claims.

It might also level the playing field for the global cotton industry – enabling all cotton growing farmers and standards to be judged purely on merit and metrics rather than marketing and PR spin.

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