In June this year, Solidaridad Europe and the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) published their latest annual ranking of the largest users of cotton among international apparel brands and retailers based on their cotton sourcing practices.1
The study found that just nine of the 82 companies listed are “doing the bare minimum to improve sustainability in the cotton sector” by sourcing 99% or all of their cotton from certified sources such as Better Cotton, organically grown cotton or recycled cotton.
Those brands are Decathlon, H&M, Ikea, Adidas, Columbia, Marks & Spencer, C&A, Lojas Renner and Puma. “All other companies are failing to achieve even this, with 30 companies achieving a score of zero in the ranking,” the study notes.2
The ranking shows that many companies, including Target, Amazon.com, Kering and Nike, do not report on the uptake of certified cotton, mention the standards they use, nor provide numbers or percentages or simply incomplete ones.3
The vast majority (89%) are "non-transparent, unsustainable and show little progress towards improving labour conditions,” according to the report, which adds that “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.”4
The findings place renewed pressure on brands and retailers, and in turn companies across their supply chains, over their use of cotton – a fibre which has long been under the microscope over its environmental impact due to its vast use of water, as well as chemicals such as pesticides and insecticides.
Most estimates indicate that more than half of all clothing produced today is made from cotton and that the fibre accounts for around 25% of global fibre production.
Data from the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) shows that to produce 1kg of lint, roughly equivalent to one T-shirt and a pair of jeans, cotton globally uses 1,931 litres of irrigation water and 6,003 litres of rainwater on average, and that cotton farming accounts for 4.7% of the world’s pesticide and 10% of its insecticides sales – far higher than its comparative land use, which is estimated to be around 2.5% of all arable land on Earth.5
According to one study published in December 2020, which reviewed existing scientific literature, around 44% of smallholder cotton farmers are poisoned by pesticides every year.6
Keenly aware of the challenges posed by cotton production as consumers demand more sustainable products, many organisations across the sector have been taking steps to reduce the fibre’s damage to the environment over recent years.
The US Cotton Trust Protocol, for instance, was set up in 2020 to help lower the impact of US-grown cotton, with goals including reducing water use by 18% and greenhouse gas emissions by 39%, as well as reducing soil loss by 50% and increasing soil carbon by 30%.7
So far, 40 brands and retailers and 800 mills and manufacturers have joined the programme, with 1.1 million cotton acres enrolled (in 2022, US farmers planted 13.79 million acres of cotton, although only 7.88 million acres were projected to be harvested).8
Also in the States, the Soil Health Institute has established the U.S. Regenerative Cotton Fund programme, which aims to draw down 1 million metric tons of CO2e from the atmosphere by 2026 through increased adoption of regenerative soil health practices by cotton producers.9
The programme is being rolled out in four states – Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia – with support from founding partner The Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation. With additional support, the Soil Health Institute says the programme will expand into North Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma, and California. Collectively, these nine states represent 85% of US cotton production.
Meanwhile, Better Cotton, the world's largest cotton certifier, which first launched in 2005, aims to improve soil and water management, reduce the use of pesticides and establish greater resilience to climate change. It claims that over 2.4 million farmers in 26 countries now have a licence to sell their cotton as Better Cotton and that its programmes have reached almost 4 million people whose working lives are connected to cotton production.10
However, while such progress has been encouraging, the outlook has been tempered by Textile Exchange’s most recent Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report, published last October, which found that the market share of "preferred" cotton – defined by a list of recognised programmes – decreased from 27% of the total cotton production in 2019/20 to 24% in 2020/21 after years of growth.11
Textile Exchange noted that “the reasons consist of a variety of factors, including weather variations, changes in the Better Cotton programme, market conditions and socio-political challenges.”
It added that in order to still meet a 50% market share of preferred cotton by 2025 – the goal of Textile Exchange's 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge – “a significant acceleration in the transition towards preferred programs is necessary. Also, continuous improvement in terms of the impacts of all cotton grown is needed.”
Solidaridad Europe and PAN UK stress that a change in attitude and approach is required from brands. Their 2023 Cotton Ranking was released alongside a research paper, ‘Cotton and Corporate Responsibility’, published by the new Sustainable Cotton Hub, which has been set up to bring together experts from organisations working in cotton, such as Solidaridad Europe and PAN UK.12
The organisations claim the paper invalidates the argument, cited by many brands, that complex trade realities are a barrier to progress and provides a series of recommendations, including investing in smallholder climate adaptation, updating purchasing practices to ensure better pay for cotton producers, and becoming transparent on cotton sourcing, although they stress that “these are just a start.”
The issues around cotton sourcing highlighted by the latest studies have emerged as a growing number of brands set targets to become net zero by 2050 or earlier. With cotton being such a widely-used fibre, it is therefore vital that significant progress is achieved in reducing its impact.
For that to happen, it will require a co-ordinated, collaborative effort from companies across the supply chain – starting with some of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers.
Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.
He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman, Rediff.com., World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.
Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.