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Top brands failing on cotton sustainability

Cotton is one of the world’s most commonly used textiles. However, the production of cotton has led to serious issues regarding environmental impact and labour conditions of cotton farmers. Although various sustainability initiatives exist, many problems and challenges remain, and the overall picture of cotton market sustainability is unclear. In order to shed light on current progress and where further action is needed, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), Solidaridad, and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have commissioned Rank a Brand to research the major cotton-using companies on policies, actual uptake, and traceability regarding more sustainable cotton; i.e. organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Better Cotton (BCI) or recycled cotton.

The report creates a transparent overview of the current sustainable sourcing performance of cotton-using companies and offers recommendations for improvement. We studied 37 companies that are estimated to source the most cotton globally, and scored them on three dimensions: policy, actual uptake, and traceability. The scorecard provides a comparison of each company’s performance in regards to sustainable cotton.

The full report can be found here.

Summary of main results

In this research, the maximum achievable score was 19.5 points. No company achieved this maximum score, mainly due to the fact that no company uses 100% more sustainable cotton or is fully transparent on their policies and on the sourcing and manufacturers of their cotton. Of the 37 companies evaluated, only eight companies scored at least 3.0 out of 19.5 points. IKEA Group is the best performing company, with a score of 12.0 points. C&A Global (9.0 points), H&M Group (9.0 points), and Adidas Group (7.75 points) also show some progress on sustainable cotton policies, actual uptake, and supply chain traceability. Six companies scored less than 1.0 point. Twelve companies provided little or no information on their sustainable cotton policies, and therefore, scored 0 points. Companies could be doing better than these results reflect, but not communicate their policies and practices to consumers. It is also possible that some brands do better than the company as a whole, as sustainability practices can vary significantly between different brands owned by the same company. We have assessed at company level because PAN UK, Solidaridad, and WWF expect entire companies shift to more sustainable cotton uptake.

cotton nl

A number of companies participate in sustainable cotton initiatives. For example, ten of the assessed companies participate in the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Companies that participate in BCI support actions on minimizing the use of highly hazardous pesticides (HHP), improving working conditions, addressing biodiversity issues, and reducing water consumption. Some companies also participate in other collaborative initiatives and/or cotton programmes. In addition to using more BCI, Fairtrade or CmiA cotton, some companies focus on using organic and/or recycled cotton.

The top scoring company for this report, IKEA Group, uses about 78% of its cotton from more sustainable sources according to the standards applied in this research. Most of the companies analysed do not have clear policies on sustainable cotton. In general, there is still a significant lack of information on sustainable cotton policies, actual uptake, and supply chain traceability in the industry.

Main conclusions

While there are multiple companies that work hard to set the right example, there is significant room and need for improvement in company sourcing and reporting on sustainable cotton, as well as an opportunity to drive market transformation. This research highlights positive developments and outcomes in regards to these companies’ achievements in sustainable cotton. This research clearly demonstrates the widespread absence of publicly available information, concerning the topics addressed for the research conducted for this report. While major brands and manufacturers have published various policies regarding commitments to using more sustainable cotton, traceability throughout the entire supply chain of cotton is necessary to further report on the uptake and implementation of these policies.

Main recommendations

For low scoring companies, we recommend that these companies adopt a policy for more sustainable cotton. After adopting a policy for more sustainable cotton, companies should also adopt a time bound and public target to source more sustainable cotton. Companies may also choose to take part in an organization like Better Cotton Initiative. Companies that have already implemented these initiatives and have received relatively higher scores can continue to improve by mapping their supply chain and using traceability tools.

Multiple standards can be applied for the sourcing of more sustainable cotton. Based on the WWF Certification Assessment Tool, we find that the following currently available standards are the most credible for more sustainable cotton at the production level:

  • Organic cotton,
  • Fairtrade cotton,
  • Cotton made in Africa (CmiA),
  • Better Cotton (from the Better Cotton Initiative – BCI).

Another, non-standardized sustainable option is recycled cotton.

The leading companies assessed in this report made good progress by collaborating with the Better Cotton Initiative. Still, to achieve a sustainable cotton supply chain, more action is needed. Cotton-dependent companies should take responsibility for their impacts and encourage the sourcing of more sustainable cotton. These companies need to continue sending market signals by increasing their purchases of cotton from credible sustainability programmes and reporting transparently on their cotton sourcing. In doing so, these companies would make a major impact for the better, both environmentally and socially.


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