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Why Cotton Got New Sustainability Framework

Better Cotton wants sustainability to be a team sport.

The cotton farming nonprofit unveiled Thursday the Delta Framework, a shared set of environmental, social, and economic indicators to measure sustainability across the cotton and coffee commodity sectors.

The culmination of three years of collaboration with Better Cotton’s cross-sector partners, the initiative seeks to provide greater harmonization when measuring and reporting the progress of farms involved in sustainable commodity certification schemes or other sustainable agriculture initiatives.

“Better Cotton is proud to have initiated and coordinated this cross-sector collaboration, which brings together expertise from across the agricultural sector,” Better Cotton CEO Alan McClay said. “The Delta Framework is making it easier for the private sector, governments and farmers to report effectively on sustainability progress, leading to improvements in the quality of support and services provided to farmers, including better financing and government policies.”

At the center of the program is a set of key sustainability indicators and guidance materials that project participants and other stakeholders have put through the paces. Better Cotton aside, several cotton standards and codes, including CottonConnect, Cotton Made in Africa, Fairtrade, the Organic Cotton Accelerator and Textile Exchange, all of them members of the Cotton 2040 Working Group, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing to align on impact measurement and reporting.

Each member, the initiative said, has committed to identifying an individual timeline for integrating relevant Delta indicators into its own monitoring, evaluation and reporting systems.

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“Through the work of the Delta Project, the major sustainable cotton standards have made significant progress towards adopting a common core set of indicators to report against,” said Charlene Collison, associate director, sustainable value chains and livelihoods, at Forum for the Future, which facilitates the Cotton 2040 platform. The implications of this, she said, are “huge.”

“Once implemented, it enables these standards to tell a common narrative, backed up with evidence, about the positive impacts—as well as the reduction of negative impacts—that sustainable production creates,” Collison said. “This will help to increase uptake by brands needing to make comprehensive and reliable sustainability claims to consumers and investors about the products they sell.”

The Delta Framework was developed through a grant from the ISEAL Innovations Fund, which is backed by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs. Besides Better Cotton, founding organizations include the Global Coffee Platform, the International Cotton Advisory Committee and the International Coffee Association.

“As attention for sustainability grows, it is becoming even more critical for all organizations working in sustainability to be able to communicate effectively about the difference they make, and the Delta Framework will be an important common reference for sustainability standards in this regard,” said Kristin Komives, director of programs at ISEAL Alliance.

One thing the project has shown is that an indicator framework isn’t a “static thing,” she said. The more the framework is used, the more those involved are learning about further refinements and improvements.

“It will be important for sustainability standards to see an interest in the data coming out of the use of the Delta Framework by industry and other stakeholders,” Komives said. “If there’s a clear demand for that information, that will provide an important incentive for sustainability standards to invest in the developments needed to fully integrate the Delta Framework in their performance measurement systems.”