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M&S, Zalando, Bestseller Join Better Cotton Traceability Initiative

Better Cotton has convened a group of international retailers and brands to help deliver new traceability solutions and bring greater visibility to the cotton supply chain.

These include companies such as Marks & Spencer (M&S), Zalando and Bestseller. The panel has pulled together an initial 1 million pounds ($1.26 million) of funding and will work with suppliers, NGOs and independent experts in supply chain assurance to develop an approach that meets the pressing needs of the industry.

“Many fashion retailers simply don’t know where the cotton in their clothes comes from,” Alan McClay, CEO of Better Cotton, said. “The reasons for not knowing are numerous, and in many cases, legitimate. This traceability panel is a major step toward addressing the reasons behind this inability to trackback to the source.”

Traceability within the cotton supply chain will soon become a market “must” with legislators on both sides of the Atlantic moving to toughen rules, Better Cotton noted. New rules presented this March by the European Commission aim to better protect consumers against false environmental claims and introduce a ban on greenwashing.

For example, sellers will not be allowed to put a sustainability label on their product if there is no certification or recognition by a public authority for it. It also prohibits sellers from making generic environmental claims such as “eco-friendly” or “green” if they cannot demonstrate environmental performance.

The Better Cotton Traceability Panel will address all aspects of the cotton supply chain, from farmers in the field through production to the consumer. Better Cotton said it has gathered input from more than 1,500 organizations so far that have made it clear that traceability is business-critical across the whole industry and that retailers and brands need to integrate sustainability and traceability into their standard business practices.

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Findings from this research showed 84 percent indicated businesses “need to know” where the cotton in their products was grown and 80 percent of suppliers surveyed sought the benefit of an enhanced traceability system. Better Cotton noted that a recent study by KPMG found just 15 percent of apparel companies claimed to have full visibility of the raw materials that go into their products.

Better Cotton and the new panel will provide substantial investment to further develop existing farm to gin tracing arrangements to underpin physical traceability and build on its existing trading platform tracking movement of one-quarter of the world’s cotton through 8,000 organizations to make it possible to fully trace any of the cotton that enters the system within a few years.

In addition, the panel will use different technology solutions and credibility arrangements to clearly distinguish country of origin initially and environmental and social practices by growers eventually, create new market mechanisms that bring value for farmers, such as rewarding them for carbon sequestration, and focus on farmers by providing training, ensuring proper working conditions, helping them access preferential financing and securing their ability to enter international value chains.

“We intend to address sourcing and intellectual property issues head on,” Katharine Beacham, head of materials and sustainability at M&S, said. “Higher supply chain assurance comes at a cost–as verifying the exact origins of a garment requires more checks and controls–so the investment of additional resources will be critical. Having worked in partnership with Better Cotton for over a decade, at M&S we have been at the forefront of sourcing more responsible cotton.

“We met our commitment of reaching 100 percent responsibly sourced cotton in our clothing in 2019, but there is still work to be done to improve traceability,” Beacham added. “We’re proud to be a part of Better Cotton’s Traceability Panel which will help to further accelerate progress within the industry.”

Laura Coppen, head of circularity at Zalando, a European online platform for fashion and lifestyle, said fashion consumers are increasingly demanding to know the provenance of their purchases and Zalando aims to offer this deeper level of transparency.

“We are all aware how complex this issue is within our industry and initiatives like the Better Cotton traceability panel will help to accelerate progress, with action to support sustainable business growth for all in the supply chain,” Coppen added. “This includes setting ambitious targets and ensuring these are actioned promptly.”

Better Cotton and its partners have trained some 2.5 million farmers in 25 countries, having raised 99 million pounds ($124.86 million) since 2010 to fund capacity building and other field-level activities. This is projected to grow to just over 125 million pounds ($157.66 million) by end of the 2021-22 season. Nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton is now grown under the Better Cotton Standard.