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Cotton 2040 Coalition Makes Case for Taking Sustainable Cotton Mainstream

Cotton is an integral part of the apparel and textile industry providing livelihoods for over 300 million people across the globe. The environmental and social implications of cotton production are, however, significant.

The water footprint for one kilogram of cotton equates to approximately 10,000 to 20,000 liters and the intensive use of agricultural chemicals can have severe health impacts on workers and surrounding ecosystems.

Shifting cotton production to a more sustainable model presents a number of opportunities across the value chain, yet only 13 percent of cotton is grown in a sustainable manner, with only a fifth of this number actually being sourced by companies for their products.

In an effort to spur a paradigm shift, leading international retailers, cotton standards, industry initiatives and stakeholders are banding together to form Cotton 2040, an initiative that seeks to make sustainable cotton a mainstream commodity rather than a niche market.

Convened by sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future with support from the C&A Foundation — whose namesake company recently debuted the world’s first Cradle to Cradle Certified™ GOLD T-shirts — the initiative includes retailers such as M&S and Target, industry standards Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Made in Africa, organic standards represented by Textile Exchange, the Fairtrade Foundation, industry initiatives Cotton Connect, IDH, Cotton Australia, Value Added in Africa and Organic Cotton Accelerator, as well as the London College of Fashion.

The initiative has identified four key priority areas to be tackled over the next two to three years by working groups to share with the wider industry:

  • Building Demand
  • Closing the Loop: Scaling up cotton recycling and circularity
  • Traceability: Building greater visibility and transparency throughout the cotton value chain and across standards
  • Upskilling for resilience: Creating a cross-industry forum to build resilience among smallholder cotton farmers in a changing world

“Past debate around sustainable cotton standards and industry initiatives has at times been polarizing, but we know to make effective progress we need to work together. At Forum, we believe that collaborative action is essential in order to address complex issues that no one entity — whether a business, standard, consumer group, NGO or government — can tackle alone,” said Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future.

“We’re delighted that leaders across the global cotton industry are ready and willing to come together and are excited to help steer them forward through this unique and growing partnership.”

The coalition is currently seeking additional partners with resources, expertise and drive to take action in one or more of these four areas. More specifically, it is inviting organizations to get involved in the ‘Building Demand’ work stream and benefit from testing and piloting the framework internally.

The first priority, ‘Building Demand,’ was launched in November 2016 with the aim of increasing uptake of sustainable cotton from the industry to drive production from 13 percent to beyond 30 percent from 2020. Currently in the works are:

  • A sustainable sourcing guide, which will serve as a standard neutral decision-making tool for companies wanting to start or increase sustainable cotton sourcing. It will help them develop strategies across different standards, types of cotton or sourcing regions.
  • A clear business case for sourcing more sustainable cotton, which can be used to drive internal engagement of procurement teams and others and will include corresponding tools to help achieve this.
  • Lessons and insights from those who have taken a pioneering role in sustainable cotton sourcing so that those starting out can go further, faster.

Before being launched and shared with the wider textile industry in October 2017, these tools are being tested and piloted by coalition members.

“Cotton 2040 is not a new platform, but a smart way to accelerate the many good initiatives out there working to mainstream more sustainable cotton. Together, we can be more than the sum of our parts and jointly tackle the effects of one of the world’s thirstiest crops,” said Leslie Johnston, Executive Director of C&A Foundation.

“Last year, Target announced our responsible sourcing aspirations around worker well-being, net-positive manufacturing and sustainable raw materials. These aspirations are guiding our work to ensure the owned brand products we deliver to Target guests are made ethically and responsibly,” said Kelly Caruso, President of Target Sourcing Services.

“We’re proud to be a member of Cotton 2040 and have a seat at the table in an initiative that has the potential to change the industry. We’re committed to championing responsibly grown and harvested cotton and this is a strong step toward making that happen.”