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LONDON – Confused about ‘sustainable cotton?’ Join the club. And if anything, things are getting worse not better.

This week we saw the launch of yet another industry initiative which, we are told, is intended to “align sustainability impact indicators and metrics for cotton farming systems.”

As part of this, a group of organisations – BCI, Cotton Connect, Cotton Made in Africa, Fairtrade, MyBMP, the Organic Cotton Accelerator and Textile Exchange – have created what they are calling the Delta Project, which was initiated by the BCI.

All these organistions have now jointly signed a Memorandum of Understanding, titled, ‘The Sustainable Cotton Aligned Impacts Measurement and Reporting Joint Commitment’. This, we are told, sets out a commitment of signatories that the Delta Framework “will become a credible and shared framework to guide impact measurement and reporting of core sustainability issues of relevance to the cotton sector.”

The project, they say, will pilot with farmers to “test and refine the indicators and data collection and reporting methodologies.” And they’ve tied it all in with the Sustainable Development Goals (which seems obligatory for any initiative these days).

Here are the draft indicators: https://www.deltaframework.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Delta-Framework_15-Indicators_Poster.pdf

So what does it all mean? Textile Exchange’s marketing says “mainstreaming more sustainable cotton” is key to addressing its significant social, environmental + economic impacts…”

More sustainable cotton? I keep hearing this phrase but what does it even mean? More sustainable than what? Are they saying the standards of the organisations in the Delta Project are associated with ‘more sustainable’ cotton than … elsewhere in the world? More sustainable than ‘conventional cotton?’ Are they offering proof of this? Metrics? Why do they even need the Delta Project if the organisations involved already producing “more sustainable cotton”? Is that not a contradiction in itself?

BCI’s own marketing says: “Looking at the sector more widely, it is clear that consistent, credible and comparable impact data across the wide range of sustainable cotton standards, programmes and codes is also important, and would encourage more brands and retailers to invest in a switch to more sustainable cotton.”

Sorry BCI but credible impact data IS available – and you know it. In 2018, Laudes – then known as the C&A Foundation – published two major studies. One was called Social and Economic Impact Assessment of Cotton Farming in Madhya Pradesh and the other was called Social, Economic & Environmental Impact Assessment of Cotton Farming in Madhya Pradesh. Both can be viewed in full here: https://www.candafoundation.org/work/resources?theme=sustainable-cotton&year=2018&q=

Veronica Bates Kassatly wrote a paper for us which referenced these studies heavily. This can be viewed here: https://apparelinsider.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/organic-cotton-cover.pdf

To recap: the studies compared the experiences of organic, BCI and conventional cotton farmers across environmental and social factors. The outcomes do not make pretty reading for fans of BCI or organic cotton.

Among other things, it was found that on average, one tonne of BCI seed cotton consumed 7 per cent more blue water than one tonne of conventional seed cotton; it made a 1 per cent greater contribution to climate change; and a 30 per cent greater contribution to eco-toxicity.

Of 1,200-odd exclusive BCI cotton farmers studied in the SEIA, almost all had used chemical pesticides, as had virtually all of their conventional colleagues.

The studies also found exclusive organic cotton farmers owed 1.6 times the amount owed by the average conventional cotton farmer. Moreover, 88 per cent of that was borrowed to purchase agricultural inputs, while only 79 per cent of the conventional cotton farmers loans were for this purpose. Also, exclusive organic cotton farmers had material costs that were 20 per cent higher than material costs per acre for conventional farmers.

Organic cotton farmers had expected a higher income. But this expectation was not realised: 17 per cent of the farmers said they had dis-adopted organic cotton farming because of disappointing results in terms of profits and yields.

All of this chimes with the general lack of uptake of organic cotton. For years we’ve been fed nonsense by the organic cotton lobby of the reasons for this being a ‘disconnect between demand and supply’ yet the reality, as this study shows, is that growing organic cotton simply doesn’t make economic sense for farmers. If brands would pay more for it, maybe it would make sense. But the organic cotton lobby is funded by brands which means it is hardly going to put pressure on them by urging them to pay a consistently fair price for organic cotton.

It’s a mess.

The findings of these two studies alone should – and in any sane world would – have promoted a period of serious soul-searching among cotton standards such as BCI, organic and so on. At the very least, BCI might have commissioned further LCAs or even considered what it was actually bringing to the party.

The studies show quite clearly that BCI cotton is no ‘more sustainable’ than conventional cotton, so surely it was time to revise its marketing spiel somewhat and drop use of the term ‘sustainable’.

That would have been the decent thing to do and, I would argue, the right thing to do by the planet (and cotton farmers who have to pay fees to get BCI certified!) But, no, it carried on regardless. No change of marketing tack. No further LCAs commissioned.

Since we published our paper, it has emerged that BCI continued to license farmers to its standard in Xinjiang long after it became clear that this Chinese province was a hotbed for forced and prison labour. But that’s another story.

For now, we have the Delta Framework, yet another initiative or programme of whatever you want to call it, with a lengthy time-line, the same old protagonists involved and no real clear idea of how it will help people or the planet.

Is this really the best the industry can do after all these years? Are we still happy to mislead people about ‘sustainable’ cotton when we all know it simply is not so? Was our industry not supposed to be ‘bouncing back better’ post-covid? If so, why can that not also mean more honest and transparent marketing instead of making claims which are untrue and designed solely to mislead and confuse?

We hear Laudes is funding the Delta Project. Given how deep the pockets of Laudes are, why not fund something worthwhile in cotton? Why not fund further LCA work? As long as I’ve written about this industry, brands have been talking about the need for better cotton data – particularly with regards the BCI. So why not put all resources into providing that – independently and completely separately from cotton standards.

There is, of course, an obvious reason why standards would be somewhat lukewarm about such an idea: who knows what they might find?

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