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Sustainable Cotton Share Grows as Brands Ramp Up Use

Sustainable cotton is seeing an uptick in supply chains.

Textile Exchange’s first annual “2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge Report” shows progress made by brands and retailers that have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their cotton from the most sustainable sources.

Of the 39 signatories to the challenge, 26 were able to report on one or more of their preferred cotton uses culminating in an estimated aggregate consumption of 760,849 metric tons of preferred cotton, representing just over 3 percent of global cotton produced. The report measures consumption data from Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber & Materials (PFM) Benchmark Program.

The challenge is meant to be a catalyst to spur a shift in the market toward the use of more sustainable cotton. The first annual report also provides an update on the achievements and impacts that cotton programs are having on water, communities, soil quality, biodiversity, social considerations and regulations.

Of the 30 Cotton 2025 signatories that completed the PFM Benchmark Program, 10 percent have achieved their 2025 target of 100 percent preferred cotton usage, all of which are organic. Brands and retailers joining the challenge and committing to source more sustainable cotton are able to choose from sources that are included on Textile Exchange’s list of recognized organic and sustainable cotton initiatives.

These initiatives include organic cotton certified to the Organic Content Standard or the Global Cotton Textile Standard Fairtrade cotton, certified to Fairtrade International or Fair Trade USA; Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton Made in Africa and recycled cotton (rCotton) certified to an independently verifiable standard such as the Global Recycled Standard or the Recycled Claim Standard. In addition, Cotton Connect’s REEL program and code provides a starting point for businesses aiming for greater sustainability in their cotton supply chain.

Of the group, 37 percent have achieved a preferred cotton (pCotton) share between 75 percent and 99 percent, 23 percent have achieved a pCotton share of 50 percent to 74 percent, 7 percent have achieved a pCotton share between 25 percent and 49 percent and 17 percent have achieved a pCotton share of less than 24 percent.

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The report notes that for sustainable cotton to become standard business practice, the amount of sustainable cotton grown and bought must increase significantly. The challenge, formed in 2017, is managed by Textile Exchange under the guidance of a steering group with representatives from Marks & Spencer, the Soil Association, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Levi Strauss & Co. and Kering.

“The sustainable approach benefits both people and planet,” La Rhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange, said in the report. “With continuous improvement and the implementation of regenerative practices, cotton farming improves biodiversity and the ecosystem, but it also has tangible material advantages. It changes the socioeconomic dynamics of these rural communities. The farmers get a fair price for their cotton and have diversified their production base with rotational crops.”

According to the report, cotton is the second most important fiber since synthetics took the lead in the 1990s. Cotton production took a dip in 2015-16, recovering with around 23 million metric tons and a market share of approximately 24.5 percent of global fiber production in 2016-17. Production of cotton is estimated to have hit approximately 25.8 million metric tons in 2017-18.

The market share of preferred virgin cotton increased from 6 percent of the total cotton production in 2012-13 to 19 percent in 2016-17, according to Textile Exchange. It is expected that the market share of preferred cotton increased to 24 percent in 2017-18.

Last year marked the third year of the PFM Benchmark Program, with participation reaching 111 companies. Preferred cotton reporting has been steadily increasing over the past three years. In 2018, 104, or 94 percent, of the 111 companies reported using one or more of the preferred cotton fibers.

Participants range from Adidas, ASOS and Eileen Fisher to Levi’s, Metawear and Timberland. New signatories joining include Mayamiko, Ramblers Way and Reformation.

Zachary Angelini, environmental stewardship manager at Timberland, said in the report: “At Timberland, we strive to be Earthkeepers in everything we do and we recognize sustainable cotton sourcing as a major part of that goal. Studies have shown the positive social benefits to farming communities, as well as the potential for these practices to sequester carbon into the soil. This is exciting work as we move beyond just minimizing environmental impacts to strategically creating real environmental and social benefits within the supply chain.”

Liza Schillo Manager, Global Product Sustainability, Levi Strauss & Co., said, “This year we achieved, and are exceeding, sourcing 50 percent of our cotton as more sustainable cotton. We are on track to accomplishing our goal of 100 percent more sustainable cotton sourced by 2020. We’re quite a large cotton buyer, so that’s no small feat.”