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AMSTERDAM – Three quarters of all identity cottons, including Better Cotton, Organic, Fairtrade and Cotton Made in Africa, are sold onto the conventional cotton market. This is the finding of a new report by NGO Solidaridad which has ranked global apparel brands according to their use of identity cottons. Adidas scores top of the Cotton Ranking 2020, which is published by three NGOs, these being Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Solidaridad, and WWF, based on research conducted and compiled by Aidenvironment.

To produce the report, 77 cotton-using companies which are estimated to use more than 10,000 metric tonnes of cotton annually, were assessed on their public policies and commitments, how much of the cotton they use is actually “from sustainable sources,” and how open they are with their supply chain traceability. 

Alexis Morgan, WWF global water stewardship lead, said: “The ranking reveals that there is a small but growing group of frontrunners who are leading the way toward a more sustainable cotton sector, with their commitment over the last few years paying off. The report gives plenty of evidence that public commitments lead to results, however many companies have still not taken the necessary steps. CEOs of these laggard companies must change course and make time-bound commitments to use more sustainable cotton.”  

The report claims: “11 big brands, including Nike, H&M, and C&A group, have committed to sourcing 100 per cent of their cotton from more sustainable sources by the end of this year. This includes IKEA, Adidas and Marks and Spencer who are aiming to maintain their 100 per cent sustainable sourcing track records. The report publishers encourage them all to not only meet and sustain their target over time, but also to uphold their commitment to making the global cotton sector more sustainable, and have a deeper positive impact on cotton farming communities and their environment.”

We do wonder if reports such as this have run their course given that the analysis contained is so misleading and littered with anomalies. First and foremost, this report claims that the four aforementioned identity cottons are more sustainable yet provides no data to back this up.

Our own independent analysis – which we shared with Solidaridad – recently found:

  • A major C&A Foundation-funded study found 25 per cent of Indian organic cotton farmers surveyed had used Monocrotophos, an insecticide acutely toxic to birds and humans and banned in many countries
  • The same research found that, on average, one tonne of BCI cotton consumed 7 per cent more blue water than one tonne of conventional cotton
  • Organic cotton is less sustainable as its yields are so low
  • The environmental impact of organic cotton, in terms of both emissions and blue water consumption, continues to be drastically understated due to the exclusion of manure’s upstream impact

This are just a few of our findings which, at the very least, cast serious doubt over claims that identity cottons are any more sustainable than conventional cotton and do make one wonder about the value and motives of reports such as this.

There is also the issue of forced labour. The report claims that, “conventional cotton is characterised by poor working conditions, child labour and forced labour.”

We would not dispute this. But surely holding up organic and BCI cotton as ‘sustainable’ alternatives in this context is misleading given that, up until recently, BCI had as its implementing partner XPCC – a Chinese quasi military body with serious, long-standing and well-established links to forced labour.

Finally, to pick up the report’s authors on one more point. They say: “However, many organic farmer groups still report that they end up selling the majority of their product as conventional cotton due to lack of demand.”

In any other industry, a lack of demand for a product would be a market signal to produce less or leave the market altogether. So why is organic cotton continually being held up as a special case?

For further reading and a more realistic picture on cotton we recommend the recent cotton paper we published by Veronica Bates Kassatly which is available for free here: https://apparelinsider.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/organic-cotton-cover.pdf

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