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Textile Exchange Insights Series: How Sustainable is Your Cotton?

Imagine you’re a sustainability specialist making great strides in raw materials. Overall, you’ve improved things by 10 percent in the last year and you’re happy. But then you discover others are improving at a faster pace. All of a sudden, you’re lagging, not leading. The Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber & Materials (PFM) Benchmark helps you work this out: how are you performing, and how does your progress compare to your peers?

In March 2017, Textile Exchange released sector results of the 2016 PFM Benchmark, which showed that 71 participating companies (shown below) from conglomerates to small fashion boutiques, are getting serious about the sustainability of the raw materials at the core of their businesses. This TE Insights Series, released in partnership with Sourcing Journal, digests some of the key findings from the report. This month’s focus is on cotton.

The Benchmark in a nutshell

The PFM Benchmark provides a robust structure to help companies systematically measure, manage and integrate a preferred fiber and materials strategy into mainstream business operations. Companies can compare their progress with the sector, and transparently communicate performance and progress to stakeholders, including their contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Moving to a portfolio approach

Textile Exchange is uncovering how far companies have come in building their mix of fibers and materials to achieve the most sustainability impact. That’s the thinking behind the portfolio approach that the PFM Benchmark measures. The Benchmark offers PFM modules within four key fiber categories (below) and the module options are growing each year.

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Cotton is still king for many

The 2016 line up of participants included heavy cotton users, with an average share of 58 percent cotton in their overall fiber usage, compared to 24 percent in the industry overall.

Cotton dominated the fiber usage of small and medium sized apparel (Apparel S/M) and home textile brands, while outdoor/sports companies were much heavier users of synthetics (mostly polyester) with an average share of 63 percent.

Looking at the ratios of conventional to preferred cotton in the results, TE found that the apparel (S/M) and home textile brands are also ahead in converting conventional cotton to preferred, followed closely by outdoor/sports companies.

An eye on the end goal

The PFM Benchmark results confirm that companies are setting ambitious SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-related) for the use of more sustainable fiber and materials, particularly for the uptake of preferred cotton. Many of the larger companies are taking a “portfolio approach” to converting conventional cotton into preferred, and involved in a number of cotton initiatives.

“By 2020, all our fibers will come from sustainable sources, which will include cotton from BCI, organically grown cotton (GOTS, OCS certified), and recycled cotton (according to GRS, RCS), or moving to other more sustainable fiber choices like Lyocell,” a spokesperson for H&M told Textile Exchange.

Seventy-three percent of the 66 companies who submitted cotton data have set targets for uptake. Sixty-one percent have discrete targets for organic. This compares with 39 percent of companies who have set similar targets for the uptake of preferred synthetics, like recycled polyester.

In the spotlight

It is not surprising that cotton is ahead of other fiber categories when it comes to corporate focus on sustainability. Over the past 15 years, non-profits, researchers, campaigners, the media and other stakeholders have been raising awareness of the problems surrounding conventional cotton and its impact on people at the base of the supply chain.

The industry has come a long way in acknowledging concerns and has put forward a number of solutions from organic to Fair Trade to Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Survey responses revealed that a number of large brands, including Nike, H&M and Inditex, also view recycled cotton as an important preferred cotton going forward.

Cotton portfolios will come in many shapes and sizes

Many of the participants see organic cotton as offering the highest environmental sustainability credentials, with stricter criteria on the use of fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs. With 56 participants (79 percent), the organic cotton module in the PFM Benchmark had the highest number of participants, many of them first movers in the market (such as C&A, Patagonia, Nike and H&M). However, under pressure to meet targets, the more readily available preferred cottons, like BCI, will offer quick access to volume and enable the larger brands to accelerate progress.

The learning here is that there is not one size that fits all, and a portfolio approach to cotton offers many advantages.

Textile Exchange views fairly traded organic cotton as playing a critical role in the future of the fiber, and also recognizes the important role that other initiatives play in making cotton more sustainable. Brands and retailers should develop a cotton strategy that best fits their company’s business and starting position, and a portfolio approach can be the best way to get started.

The 2017 PFM Benchmark survey is open until 16th June. Register via the website or contact the Fiber & Materials Strategy team to find out how to get involved.


This is an abridged version of an article written by Liesl Truscott, European and materials strategy director at Textile Exchange. For the full article, including references, click here.