Turns out there may be more sustainable cotton out there in the world than we thought. In fact, 83 percent of sustainable cotton is sold as conventional cotton and gets no recognition for its eco ways.
That’s at least according to a new report by Solidaridad, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Pesticides Action Network (PAN UK).
Production of more sustainable cotton has never been higher, researchers noted—it totaled 2.17 million tons in 2014, or 8 percent of total global supply. That number is expected to have climbed to 13 percent in 2015 but final data on last year’s sustainable cotton production isn’t yet available.
But despite all that, and the 12 global companies, including H&M and Ikea, that have committed to sourcing 100 percent more sustainable cotton, retailers are only buying 17 percent of the sustainable stuff. The rest is getting mixed in and sold with conventional cotton.
“Lots of sustainable cotton is available but frustratingly it is not being sourced and bought as such,” Solidaridad global cotton program manager Isabelle Roger said. “International clothing brands and retailers have a crucial role to play. Without much larger orders from retailers, there is a risk that farmers will abandon sustainable growing practices, the opportunity to transform the cotton market will be lost, and negative effects on people and nature will persist.”
As the industry leans more toward sustainable practices, concerns have risen about the widespread use of pesticides in cotton production. Environmental impacts like loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and contamination have also been cause for concern.
“Cotton needs cleaning up,” Keith Tyrell, director at PAN UK, said. “Conventional production requires the use of large amounts of water and pesticides. Sourcing more sustainable cotton is the best way forward.”
Because some cotton farmers are driven to debt by the cost of pesticides and fertilizers, according to the report, sustainable cotton production could help lift some of them out of poverty.
A host of sustainable cotton standards have come into play in recent years—Organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)—to support farmers in their efforts and to certify to retailers and consumers that the cotton they’re buying is actually grown sustainably.
In 2013-14, organic cotton production totaled around 116,974 metric tons, according to the report, and came from 19 producer countries, including India, China and Turkey. Fairtrade cotton production hovers around 15,000 and comes from seven different countries, though the majority is made in India (66 percent of Fairtrade cotton is also organic). CmiA, an initiative to support African smallholders and promote environmentally-friendly cotton production, turned out 399,808 metric tons of fiber in 2015. Nearly 2 million metric tons of Better Cotton, which is now grown in 20 countries including Brazil and Australia, were produced in 2014.
But, according to the report, “The gap between uptake and supply is widening as production grows faster than demand.”
Data on more sustainable cotton and consistent updates on actual uptake are also lacking.
“Greater transparency and co-ordination between standard organizations and supporters would greatly help by providing the sector with clear indications of market demand and understanding where the bottlenecks are in the supply chain,” the report noted.
The reason more brands and retailers aren’t buying more sustainable cotton? Mostly because consumers still don’t seem to want it all that much.
“Some companies cite issues on the consumer side: lack of awareness of sustainable cotton, a confusing number of labels and the low priority given to sustainability when making purchasing decisions,” according to the report.
Cost has also been a hindrance to sustainable cotton uptake, too, but according to the report, cost will become less and less of a factor. If the share of more sustainable cotton in the market goes up in terms of both supply and demand, cost to retailers will decrease, and some of those costs may disappear entirely if sustainable cotton becomes the new normal.
“The cotton sector has been through major changes in the last 10 years, with rapid growth in the volume of more sustainable cotton on the market,” according to the report. “However, most cotton produced globally is still conventional cotton. For more sustainable cotton to break through to the mainstream, production and supply need to increase, and this can only happen if greater demand is generated and leads to more sourcing.”