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Leading brands progress on cotton sustainability falls short

By Vivian Hendriksz

2 Oct 2017

Business |REPORT

London - Even though a growing number of international brands may have made the switch from regular cotton to sustainable cotton, overall ‘big brand’ progress still falls short according to the annual Sustainable Cotton Ranking 2017. Published annually by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Solidaridad and WWF, the report assesses brands progress on achieving their targets to help transform the cotton sector.

The 2017 annual report assesses the performance of 75 of the largest-cotton using companies, up from 37 in 2016, and includes a number of the largest emerging markets in Brazil, China, India and South Africa. Only 8 of the 37 companies listed in last year’s sustainable cotton ranking showed a positive development when it came to the uptake of more sustainable cotton, their policies and traceability.

C&A, M&S and H&M join Ikea at the top of the 2017 Sustainable Cotton Ranking

However this year, more companies have taken action to improve their sustainable cotton uptake, traceability and policy. The 2017 report shows that leading retailers such as H&M, Marks & Spencer and C&A have joined Ikea as the industry’s ‘frontrunners’ in this year’s ranking, although the overall uptake of sustainable cotton remains relatively low. The four cotton standards taken into account in the annual ranking include The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton Made in Africa, Fairtrade cotton and Organic cotton.

The five companies who are paving the way for sustainable cotton uptake by setting fixed targets and working to achieve them are Ikea, Tchibo, C&A, M&S and H&M, who scored 50 to 100 points in the sustainable cotton ranking. Ikea tops the list with a score of 76.7 points, receiving 18 points for its sustainable cotton policy, 48.7 for its uptake and 10 for traceability. Tchibo comes in second place with a total of 60.3 points followed by the C&A Group with 59 points, Marks & Spencer with 57.2 points and H&M with 54.8 points.

"We are very happy to have been highlighted as one of the top performing brands in the Sustainable Cotton Ranking 2017," said Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M group to FashionUnited. "We hope that our sustainability approach and goals can push the development for the whole industry and that we can inspire other brands to follow. We will gradually increase the share of sustainable cotton and our goal is to use only sustainably sourced cotton by 2020."

Another eight companies, including Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and VF Corp, are ranked as well on the way, scoring 25 to 50 points.18 additional companies, including Inditex, Gap, Esprit, scored a mere 5 to 25 points and the remaining 44 companies, which includes online giant Amazon, Max Mara and Walmart scored less than 5 points. Proportionately more companies have made sourcing commitments compared to 2016, but the report found that only 11 companies have made time-bound targets to sourced 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2020, or earlier.

Uptake of sustainable cotton by leading brands happening too slowly

“There is no reason why all large companies can’t match C&A, H&M, M&S, Tchibo GmbH and Ikea on cotton sustainability”, argued Richard Holland, WWF International. “There is now lots of information, experience and advice about sourcing more sustainable cotton available through credible programmes such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).” From the 25 companies assessed both in 2016 and 2017, 18 improved their performance, with the majority of them increasing their sourcing of more sustainable cotton.

The top five companies from 2016 (Ikea, C&A, H&M, Adidas and Nike) all increased uptake as a percentage of total volumes, using approximately 20 percent more sustainable cotton in 2017, with C&A almost doubling its scores from 2016 to 2017. In addition, the annual ranking found that 13 companies also significantly strengthened their policies in 2017 compared to 2016, with Gap, Ikea and M&S making the biggest advances.

"Uptake of more sustainable cotton is our best chance of protecting worker health and the environment from pesticide pollution”, added Keith Tyrell, Executive Director, Pesticides Action Network UK. “Despite overall policy progress, it’s disappointing that none of the companies have adopted policies to completely eliminate highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) in the cultivation of the cotton they use."

“There are still too many companies doing little or nothing about sustainable cotton”

Isabelle Roger, Global Cotton Programme Manager, Solidaridad

Nine companies also improved their traceability in the 2017 ranking, with Marks & Spencer, C&A and H&M all expanding their public lists of suppliers. But these results still fall short of bringing around industry change, warns Solidaridad, WWF and PAN UK. “Public commitments by CEOs to sourcing are critical to sector change and making sustainable cotton the norm", said Isabelle Roger, Global Cotton Programme Manager, Solidaridad.

Cotton is used in hundreds of everyday items, from t-shirts, to bed sheets and more, making it a vital cash crop for 100 million households in 80 countries. Conventional cotton production has been linked to environmental, social and economic problems such as excessive water and pesticide use, child labour and farmer debt.

In the annual sustainable cotton ranking, published on a dedicated website, PAN UK, Solidaridad and WWF are calling on all companies using large volumes of cotton to set time-bound targets to source 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2020, progressively increase the volumes of more sustainable cotton used in their products, and report publicly on progress to stakeholders.

Photo: Jos Kuklewski, courtesy of Solidardad