The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is one of the many programmes available to apparel brands and retailers

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is one of the many programmes available to apparel brands and retailers

There's an undeniable desire on the part of brands around the world to clean up their supply chains, and there's no lack of interest in using more sustainable cotton. But the confusing mix of standards and options available merely delays the decision-making process for so many firms, argues Robert Antoshak, managing director at Olah Inc.

Environmental groups need to be careful about what they wish for: push too hard, and they'll get what they want – only with unintended consequences. Case in point, the recently published 'Sustainability Cotton Ranking 2017,' sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, and Solidaridad, all founding members of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Indeed, after reading the report (which may be downloaded here), I am left wondering which cotton sustainability programme makes the most sense for brands – or not!

Let me state upfront that I am a fervent supporter of cotton sustainability initiatives, but I'm also a realist when it comes to business strategy. Companies don't make decisions without objective research and analysis to back up those decisions. In the case of cotton, apparel brands and retailers weigh the costs and benefits of using the fibre or alternatives. Factors such as fashion play a central role, as does functionality, performance, and value.

Fitting into a brand's thinking

Which brings me back to sustainability: how does that fit into a brand's thinking? According to the report, without proper standards cotton production is harmful to the planet. But there are many standards from which to choose. So, based on the report, what should brands do? Which programme or set of programmes should they use to clean up their cotton supply chain?

It's a bit confusing, but I don't feel bewilderment was the goal of the report's authors. Even so, I can't help by feel that the report leaves brands with the unintended problem of what to do. What's the best programme? Which is the most effective?

The report doesn't provide answers to these questions, but it does outline some of the relative scopes and objectives of four publicly supported programmes: BCI, Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), Fair-Trade Cotton, and Organic Cotton. Alas, the report neglects to report on private sector initiatives such as e3 or Cotton Leads, which only further complicates things and paints an incomplete picture of the available options for apparel brands and retailers.

Many environmentalists see sustainability as a journey or pathway along some continuum: keep pushing, and the world will eventually change. It can be an idealistic endeavour. It's also a passionate mission. But beyond the idealism and passion lies the reality for today's apparel industry of whether to embrace sustainability (or not) as a business strategy. A careful balance needs to be maintained for brands to sell products to meet the requirements of consumers while also addressing the demands of the environment.

Not enough sustainable cotton uptake

The report's authors complain that apparel brands have not taken up the use of sustainable cotton fast enough. And to underscore their concern, they have provided a ranking of apparel brands according to the usage of sustainable cotton. The ranking compiled research from public announcements by each of the various brands on programmes using sustainable cotton. A few firms scored well, while many others did not – in effect, a listing of good guys and bad guys.

Presumably, this ranking is designed to pressure brands, although I can't help but feel this is unfair. Shaming and browbeating companies into specific behaviours aren't the most effective ways of changing attitudes. What has happened to education? Is public shaming an efficient way of educating people? I suggest not. 

Moreover, the authors of this report are asking brands to "do the heavy lifting" while not providing an adequate definition of what to lift – further underscoring the diffuse and confusing nature of the cotton industry today. With so many cotton sustainability programmes and so many marketing initiatives, it's a crowded market for messages: everyone means well, but there are practical considerations that cannot and should not be ignored. 

For instance, nowhere in the report do the organisations succinctly define sustainability. Why is that? It seems that sustainability is only determined by participation in an identity cotton programme, not by farmer behaviour. But with all of the programmes in the trade today, which one should a brand use? It's a tough question to answer. The authors of the report appear anxious to encourage faster uptake of sustainable cotton, but with so many choices, what's a company to do?

Too many cotton sustainability programmes

All of this leads me to the following conclusion: there are too many sustainable cotton programmes. There's an undeniable desire on the part of brands around the world to clean up their supply chains, and there's no lack of interest in using more sustainable cotton. Only with so many options in the market, the diversity of choice, and the confusing mix of standards, merely delays the decision-making process for so many firms.

Worried about slow uptake of sustainable cotton? Then perhaps it's time to establish an easy to understand, simple to implement sustainability standard for the entire cotton industry. Define once and for all what is and is not sustainable. Adopt a global standard that incorporates differing approaches to growing cotton around the world. Establish minimums and then go from there.

I know I'm oversimplifying, but if the cotton industry can somehow streamline its sustainability messaging, it will not only be better for the planet, but it will also be better for sales of cotton. A strong sustainability platform helps cotton to better compete against synthetics by offering a compelling planet-friendly message to consumers.

Establishing a unified standard wouldn't be easy, for sure. Gosh, standardising all of the current cotton sustainability programmes into an uber-benchmark would be tough enough, let alone dealing with private- and public-sector politics. And, of course, sustainability comes with added costs. But if the cotton industry could settle on a uniform set of standards and a precise definition of sustainable production, then all the work could be worth the effort and would, in the end, make it so much easier for apparel companies and retailers to use more sustainably-grown cotton – which after all is the point.