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Industry Talk

Brands doing bare minimum, report finds

Unsustainable cotton is a choice, says newly-formed Sustainable Cotton Hub.

20th June 2023

Innovation in Textiles
 |  United Kingdom & The Netherlands

Clothing/​Footwear, Sustainable

When it comes to their use of cotton, the vast majority of international brands (89%) are non-transparent, unsustainable and show little progress towards improving labour conditions, according to The 2023 Cotton Ranking, published by Solidaridad Europe and the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK).

This is despite a wide range of possible actions available to corporations that can help them mitigate, address or even reverse the worst environmental and social impacts of the cotton production on which they rely, according to a simutaneously published paper, Cotton and Corporate Responsibility.

Much of the cotton purchased by major companies does not meet even the requirements of basic certification, meaning that its source cannot be verified to be meeting minimal standards. As of publication, only nine of the 82 largest cotton-sourcing companies in the world are found to be sourcing 99% or all of their cotton from certified sources – Adidas, C&A, Columbia, Decathlon, H&M, Ikea, Lojas Renner, Marks & Spencer, and Puma. All other companies are failing to achieve even this, with 30 companies achieving a score of zero in the ranking.

Many brands cite complex trade realities as a barrier to progress but Cotton and Corporate Responsibility invalidates this argument and provides clear recommendations including investing in smallholder climate adaptation, updating purchasing practices to ensure better pay for cotton producers, and becoming transparent on cotton sourcing.

“In reality, given the resources available to big brands, unsustainable cotton is a choice, but it doesn’t have to be one we live with,” says Tamar Hoek of Solidaridad Europe. “Brands and retailers can make new decisions. They can choose to be more transparent in their operations, and about their suppliers. They can choose to take on the complex question of fair pay, rather than use it as an excuse. And they can choose to engage with all actors along their supply chain, rather than hiding behind intermediaries.”

Currently smallholder cotton farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s cotton producers, live on the edge of poverty, do not receive a fair income/wage, have no access to training and no support for climate adaptation. With the impending impact of climate change likely to reduce or destroy yields across every cotton growing region, smallholder farmers will not be able to ensure reliable production and will be pushed even further into poverty.

“Nearly half of smallholder cotton farmers are poisoned by pesticides every year,” says Rajan Bhopal of PAN UK. “Zero pesticide poisoning is possible today if textile and apparel companies choose to take responsibility for their supply chains and deepen investment in supporting a transition to agroecological cotton production.”

The newly-launched Sustainable Cotton Hub will bring together experts from organisations working in and around the cotton sector, such as Solidaridad and PAN UK. The aim is to expose the sustainability challenges of cotton production, and explore the host of contributing economic, labour and environmental factors. Concretely, the platform will provide recommendations on how major stakeholders can address these critical issues.

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