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Cotton Ranking 2020: Widening gap between sustainability leaders and laggers

By Simone Preuss



For the fourth time, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Solidaridad and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK have analysed the largest cotton users (with around 10,000 tonnes of cotton/year) among international apparel brands and retailers according to their public objectives and policies, the share of sustainable cotton and transparency in their supply chain. The 2020 annual report assessed the performance of 77 of the largest-cotton using companies, up from 37 in 2017.

Leading this year is global sportswear manufacturer Adidas who was ranked sixth last year. Since then, the company has been buying only sustainable cotton, which pushed it up to the top of the ranking. Adidas is followed by Swedish furniture giant Ikea in second place and Swedish clothing chain H&M in third who also maintain 100 percent sustainable purchasing.

Gap widens between industry leaders and companies that do nothing

“Overall, the Cotton Ranking 2020 shows significant progress with the major brands in the use of sustainable cotton. But there is also a growing gap between companies that take their responsibility and the many companies that still do too little or nothing,” finds the report.

Particularly problematic is that although 21 percent of the global cotton production is actually more sustainable nowadays, only 5 percent of the world production is actually purchased by stores and brands as sustainable cotton. The rest has to be sold as conventional cotton, because there are too few large brands that specifically purchase sustainable cotton.

“No less than three-quarters of all sustainable cotton is still sold as conventional cotton. Due to the low demand for sustainable cotton, farmers' organizations are forced to sell most of their sustainable crops as conventional cotton. If more brands took their responsibility, this would not be necessary," comments Solidaridad director Heske Verburg.

Top 11 aim to make procurement of cotton fully sustainable by 2020

C&A, the Otto Group, Marks and Spencer Group, Levi Strauss & Co., Tchibo Gmbh, Nike, Inc. and the Decathlon Group make up ranks three through ten, respectively. Companies that have made the most progress are Bestseller (Jack & Jones, Vero Moda, ONLY) and Decathlon. While the former missed the Top Ten by just one spot, being ranked eleventh, Decathlon who just started out in 2017 is now well on the way of becoming a leader. All eleven top brands aim to make their procurement of cotton fully sustainable before the end of this year.

However, the initiators of the report call on all these brands to do more than just achieve their objectives: “It is also important that they keep their promise to make the global cotton sector more sustainable and to exert more positive influence on cotton farmers and their environment,” they demand.

The good news is that “in 2017, they were still among the companies that had taken the 'first steps', now they are 'in the lead', because they have started to use considerably more sustainable cotton. Virtually all companies that have publicly set goals have made significant progress, including pioneer Ikea and the new leader Adidas,” states the report.

However, there is bad news too as the number of companies that do little or nothing has remained virtually unchanged since 2017. “About a third of the companies, including internationally known names such as Amazon, Footlocker, Giorgio Armani and Forever 21, scored zero points in the rankings. They show no willingness to change, despite the worldwide growing concern about increasing water scarcity, pollution, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity,” sums up the report.

“The ranking shows that a small but growing group of leaders is taking the lead in making the cotton sector more sustainable and that this commitment has paid off in recent years. Although the report clearly proves that public commitment yields results, many companies are still not willing to do what is needed. The CEOs of these laggards must change course and make time-bound commitments about the use of more sustainable cotton,” confirms Alexis Morgan from WWF International's freshwater program.

More transparency is needed when it comes to cotton purchasing

More transparency is required from all large cotton users as only 23 companies announce their absolute volume of sustainably purchased cotton, which in most cases, was only shared confidentially with the researchers. Only 11 companies make public how much cotton they purchase in total.

“The ranking shows that companies are more likely to commit themselves publicly, but are still insufficiently transparent about their supply chains and purchasing policy. Companies must set more time-bound goals, the percentage of sustainably purchased cotton must be increased and the precise origin of the cotton must become more transparent,” advises PAN UK director Keith Tyrell.

Making up the Top 25, starting from rank 12, are The Gap, Tesco, Benetton, Esprit, PVH Corp., Columbia Sportswear Company, Woolworths, Tom Tailor, Hugo Boss, Lojas Renner, Gildan Activewear, Next, Target and the VF Corporation. While the Top 20 companies are well on the way in their journey to more sustainable cotton, the rest are just getting started, leaving much room for improvement.

Photos: Solidaridad / Cotton Ranking 2020

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