A Better Way to Make Cotton

A tiny group of companies is attempting to revolutionize how one of the world’s most important commodities is cultivated, as global cotton prices continue to vary considerably and the consequences of climate change threaten the 300 million people engaged in cotton cultivation throughout the world. Faced with many complications, the Better Cotton Initiative is experimenting with new ways to make cotton more sustainable without increasing costs.

Cotton is the lifeblood of the apparel business, but it is encountering difficulties. Cotton growers suffer the harsh effects of rising temperatures, drought, flooding, and pest infestation daily. Extreme weather is killing entire harvests, affecting not only the cotton supply but also farmers’ families and local economies. Cotton producers employ expensive chemicals to enrich the soil and avoid pest infestation, and they consume precious natural resources like water to keep the cotton fields prospering.

A new solution is required.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is working to address these essential concerns to make cotton production more sustainable worldwide. BCI is attempting to fundamentally change the way cotton is farmed by focusing on three goals: reducing cotton’s environmental effect, improving labor standards, and raising farmers’ economic livelihood. BCI’s approach is straightforward. The partnership works with local organizations to teach cotton farmers better farming practices like integrated pest management, border crop planting, and irrigation system setup. In addition, farmers receive training on labor issues, particularly the dangers of child labor. On the ground, NGOs are attempting to take advantage of local practices.

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Local leaders in India, for example, write songs about BCI agricultural methods to spread the word around their villages. This approach has been used to pass down significant oral histories for years.

Finding a way to mainstream Better Cotton without boosting prices is a huge challenge. Other commodity schemes, such as sugar, coffee, and cocoa, have forced participants to complete “certifications,” resulting in luxury products that are out of reach for most customers.

BCI’s primary goal is to ensure that Better Cotton becomes a mainstream product rather than a pricey, specialist item. As a result, during the start-up phase, BCI is requesting all of its partners to refrain from labeling items as “Better Cotton.”

Traceability is another significant issue. The cotton cultivation process is usually three or four steps separated from the apparel manufacturing process. Cotton isn’t grown or purchased directly from farmers by retailers, and neither is yarn or fabric. For years, the garment industry has battled to develop a means to monitor cotton from field to gin to understand each farm’s labor and environmental practices.

Between the time cotton is harvested and finished products are delivered to retailers, there can be up to six ownership transfers. We’re concentrating on developing a dependable method of tracing Better Cotton. To ensure that sustainable cotton is used in our products, each bale of Better Cotton has a traceable identity number. However, there is still work to maintain traceability as raw cotton bales become finished products.

Despite the difficulties, multinational garment firms have a significant opportunity to use their sphere of influence to effect positive change in the supply chain. Levi Strauss & Co., for example, has held meetings with mills and spinners in India, China, and the Americas to promote Better Cotton and explain why it is such a vital endeavor for us. These same mills and spinners proved their dedication by delivering us Better Cotton fabrics.

Having a sustainable — and economical — the source of cotton is critical for long-term business growth for companies like Levi Strauss & Co., which uses cotton in 95 percent of its goods.

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The Better Cotton trial locations’ initial findings are positive. For example, local farmers in Pakistan who used Better Cotton farming practices witnessed a 32 percent reduction in pesticide and water use and a 69 percent rise in net income.

Changing the way a commodity is grown while avoiding price increases is a difficult task. And there are still obstacles to overcome to make it a reality. We are, nonetheless, making progress. For example, Levi Strauss & Co. is employing a Better Cotton blend in over two million pairs of jeans this year.

To make Better Cotton a global reality, we’re collaborating with other big brands like H&M, IKEA, Adidas, Marks & Spencer, and NGOs like WWF, Solidaridad, and PAN-UK, farmer organizations, cotton traders, and mills.

We are convinced that Better Cotton farming techniques are the long-term solution since they are better for farmers, textile and garment firms, and the environment. We can make cotton “better” if we work together.

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