The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has hit the 1m bale mark in the US as the number of farms participating in the licensing programme in the country grows.

Marking the end of its fourth season of operation in the US, the BCI said that in 2017, 1m bales - or 236,000 metric tonnes - of cotton were produced.

Key to BCI's rapid growth in the US has been a 'group assurance' approach to managing the requirements for participating farms. Growers participate as part of a grower group, joining together with other growers in their area.

A BCI Group Assurance Implementing Partner — typically from a coop, merchant, gin or grower association — provides farm-level support, helps growers understand licensing requirements, gathers data, conducts farm monitoring and coordinates third-party verification. BCI provides training and support to the partners.

"We launched in the United States in 2014, in response to our retailer and brand members, who wanted to source US grown cotton that meets the Better Cotton Standard for social and environmental performance," says Scott Exo, BCI USA country manager. "Since then, along with our industry partners, we've now grown to include 366 farmers in 14 states, who now grow 5% of US cotton."

Among the partners now managing BCI assurance groups are US offices of all the major global cotton trading companies, as well as several regional merchants, marketing coops and one Texas gin. And several local gin managers are helping with data-gathering and verification visits.

"The group approach has enabled merchants and others to respond to this demand by helping farmers participate, but it also holds great potential to advance a fundamental goal of the BCI programme - continuous improvement," adds Exo.

"Nearly all US farms meet the core requirements for licensing. But unlike many other certification programmes, which merely emphasise compliance, the Better Cotton Standard System also measures and encourages ongoing improvements, in things like water stewardship, soil health, and worker well-being. BCI participation creates a framework to assess and accelerate improvement, with the active encouragement of our partners."

Cheryl Luther, manager at Black Oak Gin in northeast Arkansas, has been working with the BCI programme since its first year in the US. She says she has encouraged farmers to participate as a way to benchmark themselves against globally recognised standards, set goals for ongoing improvements, and meet growing expectations from brands, retailers and their customers. "And it adds the increasingly important layer of independent verification."

Rapid growth in the number of US BCI partners, farms and bales is in direct response to parallel growth in BCI retailers and brand members, many of whom are setting aggressive targets for their use of Better Cotton. In the last three years, North American brands like Target, Gap Inc, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Guess, Williams-Sonoma and others have joined earlier BCI members like Nike Inc., American Eagle Outfitters, Ann Inc., VF Group and Levi Strauss & Co.