Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) can help address major sustainability issues in the South Asian Cotton sector, according to a report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

The report focuses on Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, stating that VSS’s can improve pest management, water conservation, and farmers’ incomes and prices across the South Asian cotton sector.

The VSS’s mentioned are Organic, Fairtrade, Better Cotton, and the Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) Cotton Code.

The IISD identifies that there is limited regional collaboration between VSS’s and intraregional and bilateral trade agreements. None of the trade agreements surveyed by the report had specific provisions to support advancing sustainability in the South Asian cotton sector.

The report also highlighted that there is a lack of national policies and legislation to address sustainability. However, according to the IISD, general environmental policies and regulations in South Asia “may have had some impact on improving pest-management practices, promoting water conservation, and ensuring fair prices and incomes for farmers.”

The report sets out recommendations for alignment between VSS-setting bodies and policy makers in South Asia:

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Recommendations for VSS-setting bodies:

  • Develop targeted guidelines and training opportunities for farmers.
  • Improve assurance systems and product traceability requirements to increase trust in certification and verification processes.
  • Provide a platform for regional dialogues and action among different stakeholders.
  • Build partnerships between standard-setting bodies as well as with private initiatives to increase their impact and efficiency.

Recommendations for policy makers in South Asia:

  • Update sectoral, environmental, and labour policies to support best practices in sustainable production and VSS compliance.
  • Strengthen sustainability provisions in trade agreements.
  • Generate domestic and regional demand for VSS-compliant cotton.
  • Establish organic seed banks.
  • Target the promotion of VSS compliance in specific regions as a tool to improve agricultural practices where they are needed most.

The IISD’s report comes shortly after Cotton Connect’s Impact Report, which showed improvements in sustainability and farmer profits across the South Asian cotton sector.