Is it really Better Cotton?

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a collaborative effort of most of the world’s large cotton purchasers and distributors, has a clear sense of the challenge of transforming this mega-commodity with a troubled history. But it might just be fostering complacence and giving big companies a pass.

On its face, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) looks like just the sort of international cooperation one most hopes for from the corporate world. It identifies a series of social and environmental concerns, lays out principles, clearly articulates ways to untangle parts of a mess involving complex labor relations, problematic petrochemicals, water shortages, land degradation, and more. It’s a mess worth untangling: cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop, involving as many as 250 million people, disproportionately in the developing world, and its dark history has led to an unsettling present.

And yet the progress is not obvious. Founded in 2005, BCI appears to have succeeded mainly in becoming part of the definition of action, rather than in fostering action itself. An analysis of more than twenty major brands’ cotton-related activities shows a clear recognition of the underlying issues, but also widespread shortcomings and only small pockets of genuine progress.

Why do we need Better Cotton anyway?

So what is BCI exactly? And how did we get here? And why would anyone look at an entire commodity and decide that we need a better version of it?

If ever there were a commodity whose history implicitly asked us for better, cotton is it. While cotton itself can be warm and soft and cuddly, the cultivation and trade of cotton is filled with slavery and colonialism, intertwined with empire and war. Even in the last century, cotton cultivation has also often involved coercive labor relationships that have persisted long past the formal end to slavery. Furthermore, since the mid-twentieth century, cotton has become one of the most chemical-intensive large-scale crops in the world.

With that history, it is understandable that people would cast about for better cotton. Founded in 2005, BCI articulated early on a series of principles to move cotton cultivation away from its history. According to this strong and clear list, “BCI Farmers…

  • …minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices.”
  • …promote water stewardship.”
  • …care for the health of the soil.”
  • …enhance biodiversity and use land responsibly.”
  • …care for and preserve fibre quality.”
  • …promote decent work.”
  • …operate an effective management system.”

These principles address environmental and labor concerns head-on, promising to tackle all of the major concerns from the distant and recent past. A tall order to be sure, but that is the purpose of a statement of principles.

Finally, we have the question of origins. Most cotton, like most commodities, is not traceable, that is, information on the origins of a particular shipment or batch does not accompany that cotton. In one sense, this lack of traceability is a victory for markets: the fluid nature of commodity markets is a form of efficiency. At one level, we simply don’t care where our wheat or corn or soy or sugar or cotton comes from; we simply want it to achieve a particular quality.

On the other hand, the absence of traceability translates into the absence of accountability. Without traceability, firms have no visibility into their supply chains and therefore no way to manage any associated risk. Given consumers’ and policy-makers’ rising expectations of corporate environmental and social performance, the BCI effort aims at addressing traceability as well. (To be clear, BCI cotton is not yet 100% traceable, but the effort is moving in that direction.)

BCI now counts among its members almost all of the major apparel brands and retailers that sell to the developed world. Furthermore, so-called “Better Cotton” – that is, cotton that is associated with BCI – has become a central part of definitions of higher-performing cotton aimed at addressing these historical and current ills. That emerging – and problematic – definition is our next stop.

A problem of words: “sustainable cotton”

Simultaneously the most encouraging and problematic part of the landscape is its most obvious and seemingly simple: the definition of progress itself. Overwhelmingly, firms associated with BCI are setting goals to source “sustainable cotton” – which almost invariably means cotton meeting one of three different criteria: BCI cotton (or “Better Cotton”); organic cotton; and recycled cotton.

On its face, each element of this definition seems reasonable. Organic is clearly superior in a variety of ways: recent and not-so-recent research confirms this finding. Any list of cottons that qualify as environmentally and socially superior has to include organic cotton. Recycled materials generally come out well ahead of their virgin counterparts – indeed, recycled textiles figure prominently in a recent Textile Exchange report. And BCI’s principles appear to address all of the worst problems associated with conventional cotton production, from the degradation of soils and use of problematic pesticides to the labor relationships bound up in cotton product. In short, “sustainable cotton = BCI, organic, and recycled” feels pretty reasonable.

Many major companies acknowledge the issues posed by cotton as they frame the solution around these three elements. A typical example comes from Inditex:

“Cotton is our single most important raw material – but it is also a resource-hungry crop. As a result, Inditex is committed to moving towards more sustainable cotton production, such as organic, recycled and ‘Better’ cotton, and working with international initiatives to promote the sustainability of the cotton industry.”

Inditex web page titled “Sustainable Materials”

Virtually every company that draws on BCI uses a version of this three-part definition.

The problem that emerges here, however, is subtle and yet unavoidable: Saying that certain cotton is “BCI cotton” or “Better Cotton” does not mean anything in particular. This seemingly damning statement is true in two distinct ways:

  • First, BCI is a set of principles, not a clear and identifiable standard. To be called “BCI cotton”, one need not meet any particular level of performance. BCI’s principles could eventually morph into a set of standards, but today they do not represent a particular standard.
  • Second, BCI does not involve certification that guarantees traceability. Whereas other standards (organic, Forest Stewardship Council, fairtrade, etc.) all have a “chain of custody” process or other mechanism to ensure that standards have been met. BCI does not.

The combination of these points – no clear bar, no process to ensure meeting the bar – unfortunately means that BCI has not created what it purports to have created.

This subtlety appears to slip by some of the largest firms, and they regularly make clear public statements that ignore the underlying lack of performance assurance. For example, Adidas claims deftly: “Not only does the BCI aim to reduce the use of pesticides, it also promotes efficient water use, crop rotation and fair working conditions.” Yet the firm fails to provide any evidence that its use of BCI relates to clear standards or credible certification to such standards. This bold doublespeak is common among cotton claims.

Nonetheless, company after company after company has set goals around cotton based on BCI’s framework, including BCI optimistically in the definition of cotton to which they aspire. That fragile reality was the springboard for our in-depth analysis.

Our analysis: fourteen firms, big promises, lofty goals, mixed results

To assess the meaning of BCI, we looked at the cotton-related social and environmental efforts of a subset of BCI’s major members. We assessed the companies’ goals for cotton procurement, their definition of “sustainable” (or otherwise environmentally and socially superior) cotton, and their current activities and progress. Our complete technical analysis describes our methodology and findings in detail; this section provides a snapshot, which despite its brevity is surprisingly clear and compelling.

We selected 14 companies, all of them BCI members, in order to get a sampling of major global cotton purchases and prominent brands. The list is tilted toward larger firms – indeed, it includes many of the world’s largest apparel firms – but it includes some smaller firms with clear strategies and goals related to BCI. The chart below groups them roughly into four or five categories.

  • Visionaries: Levi Strauss, Williams Sonoma
  • Goal-Setters: Nike, Adidas, IKEA, H&M, Kering, Target, Gap, Hugo Boss, Decathlon
  • Participants: Inditex, J Crew, Sainsbury’s
  • Silent Members: none of the major firms considered

(Note: This framework focuses entirely on brands engaging with BCI and therefore does not include firms that procure only organic cotton, such as Patagonia, prAna, and Pact. More on that shortly.)

The framework aims to clarify the differences among the firms, but the labels require some explanation.

Visionaries: This small group of major firms distinguishes itself with a combination of participation in BCI and explicit statement of concern about BCI’s shortcomings. These firms engage with BCI but are also clearly looking beyond BCI, in large part because of the effort’s flaws.

Goal-Setters: They all use some version of the “sustainable cotton” definition that includes BCI, and almost all have short-term reporting and long-term goals that include BCI. This large group of firms includes most of the large global firms that have engaged BCI.

Participants: State their membership using the BCI provisioned language to describe what BCI is and its impact without reference to the company’s use of BCI or associated goals.

Silent BCI Members: Silent members appear on BCI’s site but make no mention anywhere of their membership in or use of BCI cotton. Often silent members do not describe their use of cotton at all. This category includes hundreds of companies, including many small ones. This analysis does not focus on them because they are not setting the tone or content for discussions of “sustainable cotton” and BCI.

This spectrum of activity is at once inspiring and discouraging. The leaders inspire because they have pushed themselves and others to envision a better future for cotton, even quietly critiquing BCI. Yet the imprecise and flawed definition of “sustainable cotton” casts doubt on the future effectiveness and the current sincerity of these corporate efforts. Big brands persistently attempt to set goals with BCI as a key ingredient – but without openly pushing BCI to mean more. This complacency sends an unproductive and even dangerous message to others in the industry.

It is important to underscore what this ‘ranking’ means and doesn’t mean. Firms listed here as “goal setters” are staking out ambitious-sounding transformations of their cotton sourcing, often with 100% “sustainable cotton” goals within a decade. Yet observers should view those goals skeptically, given the flaws in the structure of BCI – and the almost total lack of discussion of those flaws, much less concrete, time-bounded efforts to address them.

Toward a truly better future for cotton

There is no reason that BCI can’t address its major flaws. The path is clear: set a clear standard and include a certification regime to ensure adherence to the standard. Consensus-driven standard setting, implementation of traceability, and widespread credible certification are often challenging, slow, and expensive. But they are also well understood and occurring at scale in a variety of settings, such as organic and fairtrade food.

Of course, there is already an option for truly environmentally “better” cotton: certified organic cotton, specifically the Global Organic Textile Standard. This analysis focuses on BCI because of its global membership and centrality in corporate goal-setting, but all-organic is in effect another category of action. Outside of – and frankly, sitting clearly above – is a small group of brands that source exclusively organic cotton. They are not the largest firms in the list, but they are significant brands (not small niche all-organic firms, such as Pact). And in at least one case, a firm has spoken publicly about its concerns with BCI, including the absence of standards governing the use of pesticides. The members of this small group are not part of BCI so the category serves as a reference point, rather than part of the analysis.

Similarly, there are labor standards that embody and execute BCI principles regarding working conditions and wages, notably fairtrade. Several of the BCI partner brands refer to fairtrade certification.

Perhaps some brands are moving these directions, albeit without the fanfare with which they celebrate their current BCI-heavy targets and accomplishments. Fissures in the status quo are appearing where firms explicitly acknowledge issues with BCI traceability (Levi Strauss), the value of focusing much more on organic (Kering and Inditex), pervasive labor issues in cotton supply chains (Adidas), and the need to partner with NGO partners working toward measurable outcomes that closely resemble organic and fairtrade standards (Nike, IKEA, Hugo Boss, and H&M).

No one should doubt the intentions of the firms, farmers, and other value chain members involved in the Better Cotton Initiative. BCI and its corporate partners have articulated clear principles and mobilized stakeholders globally to bring light to a persistently dark corner of the global economy. But in order to land BCI’s soaring principles meaningfully in the cotton field, there is real work to do. With a focus on rhetoric over results so far, and a lack of blunt discussion of current shortcomings, that better transformation may yet prove a tough row to hoe.

I assembled this work based on research conducted jointly with my former student Charmaine Guillory. – Josh

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