The WWF and IKEA have released a new report highlighting the impacts of their work with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), as the organization restates its aim to make up 30 percent of global cotton production by 2020.
Two of the founding members of BCI, WWF and IKEA started collaborating in 2005 on Better Cotton projects in India and Pakistan. The new progress report outlines the partnership history and story so far, and details 2013 project results — including reduced usage of water and chemical pesticides and fertilizers, along with improved earnings and social benefits for workers in the two countries.
“We can do a lot to improve standards in our own supply chain by working with suppliers and so on, but some issues are systemic and not something we can solve on our own,” Simon Henzell-Thomas, IKEA Sustainability Policy & Partnerships Manager, says in the report. “Together with a strategic partner with expertise, like WWF, we have a much bigger impact. And because IKEA is a big market player, we have a responsibility to be part of a wider movement.”
“The speed of developments when it comes to cotton is unprecedented — no one could ever have expected it to move ahead so quickly. An important success factor is that both organisations have such engaged and hard-working co-workers, not least in the field. They make great efforts,” says Marcus Albers, Manager Corporate Partnerships WWF Sweden.
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“What we are doing with cotton is a great example of market transformation. We have an amazing opportunity to tip an entire market to becoming more sustainable,” Henzell-Thomas added.
The report states that the roughly 37,000 Pakistani growers of Better Cotton in the Bahawalpur and Toba, Tek Singh and Punjab regions used 37 percent less pesticides, 22 percent less chemical fertilizers and 21 percent less water, and saw a 29 percent increase in the farmers’ gross margins. Meanwhile, the estimated 6,000 farmers in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra in Pakistan are reportedly using 38 percent less pesticides, 24 percent less water and 29 percent fewer fertilizers, and have seen a 45 percent increase in their gross margins. While the results suggest that Better Cotton practices can result in significant reductions in fertilizer use, pesticides and water, longer-term impact studies are needed to confirm this trend.
The report also says that apart from the environmental benefits, the partnership’s cotton projects in India and Pakistan show that project farmers’ earnings in India last year were: “around 45 percent higher compared to those using conventional cotton cultivation methods.”
“BCI has the ambitious aim of having Better Cotton make up 30 per cent of global cotton production by 2020,” says Lena Staafgard, business director at BCI. “This would mean working with 5 million farmers across the world, bringing benefits to 20 million people involved in primary production alone. Collaboration is the key to achieving this ambitious goal.”
With 43,000 farmers in India and Pakistan now using more responsible cotton-farming techniques, the availability of Better Cotton is increasing rapidly — and the Initiative’s goal is to make production large enough to make it a mainstream global commodity before 2020.
But the report also cautions about the dangers of allowing Better Cotton to command premium prices, which would prevent it from becoming a sustainable mainstream commodity. Aside from its environmental benefits and the savings to the farmer (from not having to buy chemical fertilizers and pesticides), some supply chain actors feel the practices require above and beyond care that they’re not being compensated for.
“Differentiated prices for Better Cotton have been developed in many countries due to the gap between demand and supply. It is in these moments that retail and brand members of BCI need to stand firm,” said Pramod Singh, Cotton Leader at IKEA. “The way forward is to increase the supply evenly over more markets around the world.
Hammad Naqi Khan, Global Cotton Leader at WWF International’s Market Transformation Initiative agrees: “Retailers have to stick to not allowing a premium, and pay only for real production costs. But it is an open market commodity, subject to supply and demand mechanisms. And when demand rises, some people do see an opportunity to make money.”
While things are looking up for thousands of farmers in Pakistan, conditions for cotton farmers farther north in Uzbekistan are still worrisome. But to date, 152 brands and retailers representing over US$1 trillion in revenue have signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s (RSN) "Company Pledge Against Forced Child and Adult Labor in Uzbek Cotton," declaring their refusal to source from the country until it ceases the forced labor of children and adults in the cotton fields. In February, RSN released a Cotton Sourcing Snapshot, which rated 49 companies in the apparel and home goods industries on steps they are taking to ensure cotton from Uzbekistan picked with forced labor does not enter their supply chains. Only five companies scored over 50 points (of a possible 100) — IKEA, which earlier that month declared it now sustainably sources 72 percent of its cotton, was #3, with 62.5 points.