HONG KONG — Sustainable cotton production and procurement levels are on the rise, but they still have a long way to go and educational efforts are central to lifting them, according to members of the Better Cotton Initiative.
The nonprofit organization promoting sustainable cotton production held a two-day conference here to discuss ways to promote and implement global standards to cotton’s complex supply chain, minimizing the impact on the environment and promoting healthy working conditions.
It remains a challenge to convince retailers to revisit their sourcing structure and tap into new suppliers, said BCI chief executive officer Alan McClay on Wednesday, the second day of the event. “Part of the problem is that there’s a learning curve. For retailers it’s quite a big job to adapt your internal processes to be able to select the right cotton and to map out your supply chain to make sure you know where that Better Cotton is available. There’s no resistance, it’s more about inertia.”
While certain retailers such as Hennes & Mauritz and Ikea have embraced BCI’s mission, Wal-Mart chose to leave the organization recently and other big players like Carrefour remain holdouts. McClay said BCI needs to win over the world’s largest retailers to gain necessary momentum. BCI’s membership roster also includes Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Nike, Inditex, Burberry, Tesco and Marks & Spencer.
BCI branded cotton production came in at 2.6 million metric tons in 2015, ahead of the organization’s goal. But only 9.7 percent of that cotton, or 251,000 metric tons, was actually procured by retailers and branded as BCI cotton. BCI is aiming to produce 3.9 million metric tons of cotton this year and sell nearly 13 percent, or 500,000 metric tons. And it’s aiming to do that at a time when worldwide cotton consumption is falling as retailers increasingly favor synthetic fibers.
As for overall cotton production, BCI cotton accounted for 11.9 percent in 2015 and the goal is to lift that figure to 30 percent by 2020.
While consumers are becoming increasingly conscious about the origin of their clothing, that awareness is not necessarily translating into actual sales of sustainably produced clothing, conference participants said. McClay said tendency is applicable worldwide, whether it is an emerging market like China or more mature ones such as the U.S. and Europe.
“Consumers care, but when it comes to the actual purchasing decisions, there’s a big gap between what they care about and what they actually buy,” he said, adding that a select crop of retailers is driving demand.
“If it weren’t for companies like H&M or Ikea who are actually taking a forward-looking stance and actually imposing sustainability on their customers, I’m not sure the market share would be that big,” he said.
McClay said other key goals for BCI are to direct philanthropic funding to farmer support and cultivate alliances with other organizations that have expertise in areas like social issues, gender equality and forced labor.
During the conference, sourcing executives from such companies as Adidas and American Eagle spoke enthusiastically about their sourcing relationship with BCI and vowed to strengthen their ties to the organization as they expand their sustainability efforts. Meanwhile, a Chinese cotton farmer and representatives from local cotton growing associations in Israel, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan spoke about how they are reducing their use of pesticides and irrigating fields more efficiently.
H&M is one company that has become a vocal proponent of sustainability after facing criticism in the past for the labor conditions at its suppliers and its contribution to a culture of disposable, cheap garments in the marketplace. Helena Helmersson, global head of production at H&M, said it makes business sense to move to sustainable sourcing as consumer awareness increases — particularly among young people — and natural resources come under strain.
“It’s clear that if you want to be competitive in the future, it will not be enough to make fashionable garments, you also have to [take] a stand,” she said.
This year, H&M will source about 26 percent of its cotton from BCI. It plans to lift that percentage to 84 percent in 2020, Helmersson said, adding that the remaining 16 percent will also be sustainably sourced via other methods.
While H&M sources much of its cotton in China and India, the company is looking at other regions for future procurement. Helmersson said she just returned from a trip to Ethiopia, where H&M set up a production and supply chain office two years ago.
“We believe a lot in that market,” she said.