Navigating the cotton certification maze

Sensemaking / Navigating the cotton certification maze

A number of different schemes are setting standards for sustainable cotton, each with their own idiosyncrasies. Will they work together in years to come? Oliver Balch reports.

By Futures Centre / 19 Aug 2013

You want a sustainable cotton t-shirt. So you take yourself down to your local high-street department store, check the label and buy yourself one. If only it were that simple... Shoppers have an increasing array of logos, marks and seals to negotiate. First you have the established brands like Soil Association, Fairtrade and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA). Then there’s Better Cotton, managed by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which verifies rather than certifies, so – for the moment at least – comes without a label. Not to forget own-label systems, such as those developed by John Lewis and by C&A with Textile Exchange (and the Shell Foundation).

All claim to be sustainable, so which to choose? The easy answer is: it doesn’t much matter. Estimates differ, but cotton under these schemes still only controls less than 3% of total market share. So whichever you buy will be helping the planet or growers, or ideally both. Cristoph Kaut, CmiA’s Managing Director, draws a diplomatic analogy from the automotive industry: “There are different cars and they have different customers … but we all basically want to arrive at the same objective.” For car drivers, that could be home or the office. For cotton certifiers, it’s a sustainable product.  

That’s not to say all the schemes are identical. Far from it. Each certifying organisation interprets the term ‘sustainability’ slightly differently and thus adopts differing criteria. BCI and CmiA currently work together in partnership, to promote greater sustainability for African smallholder farmers, by benchmarking their standards. Their agreement means that CmiA-verified sources are recognised as Better Cotton on the market. This partnership is an effective way to mainstream sustainability in cotton production by building on existing knowledge and activities. Both organisations benefit, as does Africa’s cotton sector, and in particular its small farmers, who are the weakest link in the value chain.

The most marked division is between the more social-minded Fairtrade seal and the more environmentally focused organic standards. By buying Fairtade, you are guaranteeing the producer organisation (usually a cooperative) a fair price (the so-called “minimum price”, which, depending on market conditions, should include a price premium for farmers). Buy organic, in contrast, and you have the satisfaction of knowing core agro-ecological principles have been met. So no toxic pesticides, no synthetic fertilisers, no genetic modification (more than 50% of global cotton is GM) and plenty of local inputs. Neither scheme is exclusively social or environmental, however, as the Fair for Life social responsibility standard offered by Germany-based organic certifier IMO illustrates.

Better Cotton and CmiA, together with most in-house labels, tend to adopt a more holistic set of criteria. Better Cotton, for instance, counts maintaining healthy soils, preserving natural habitats and promoting decent work among its core metrics. Similarly, CmiA contains a range of measures addressing “environmental, economic and social sustainability” for on-farm processes. In both cases, attention is more on policies and processes than specific performance indicators. Hence, the push for producers to adopt best practice approaches to cotton growing, be that Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Integrated Pest Management (IPM) or related equivalents.

There are differences of scope too. CmiA, as its full name suggests, concentrates only in Africa. And within that geographical remit, it works exclusively with smallholders. Likewise, Cleaner Cotton focuses just on cotton growers in California. Better Cotton, on the other hand, covers cotton producers globally, be they large (as almost all producers are in Brazil, for example) or small (as in India and Africa). That taps into BCI’s ambition to take sustainable cotton “mainstream”, as BCI Programme Director Ruchira Joshi puts it.

Approaches to certification differ as well. Fairtrade and some organic standards insist that all certifiers must be third parties, which ensures independence but adds in cost. The extra cost, which comes above and beyond the additional cost inherent to limited volume production, usually gets picked up by the consumer at the till. BCI and CmiA, meanwhile, lean more towards self-regulation. It’s a cheaper approach, although the door remains open for additional audits by others in the supply chain as well as for third-party spot-checks. In the case of these last two initiatives, pragmatism wins. Setting the bar lower gives space for producers to continuously improve, something CmiA actively encourages through the provision of on-the-ground training for its 480,000 participating farmers.

As would be expected, every standard comes with its own idiosyncrasies. CmiA, for example, is unique in operating along ‘social business’ lines. In this vein, it charges retailers and brands a licence fee for using cotton certified under its system. BCI, meanwhile, operates a multi-level membership for its 24 participating retailers. Top of the tree is the ’Pioneer’ category, for which Ikea, adidas, M&S and H&M have opted. According to BCI, these Pioneers are deeply committed to the success of Better Cotton, and wish to be a driving force in making Better Cotton a mainstream commodity. Their investment is significant, both in financial terms as members of the Better Cotton Fast Track Programme, and internally in the amount of resources they dedicate to ensure Better Cotton enters their supply chains and to bring their suppliers with them on their journey. They contribute actively to the continuous improvement of BCI, participating in investment decisions on farmer support.

Can we expect the sustainable cotton certification market to coalesce in coming years? Unlikely, says Simon Ferrigno, an industry expert and author of An Insider’s Guide to Cotton & Sustainability. He anticipates more cooperation at a regional level. What’s important is for brands to be able to source what they need, where they need it from, “without necessarily looking to see if it’s organic or BCI or CmiA”. That’s already beginning to happen. H&M is a BCI member, for example, but sources organic too. M&S does so too, although it also stocks cloths with Fairtrade cotton in the mix.

Farmers opt for whichever certifier comes knocking first

The certification maze isn’t just a buyer’s issue, of course. Farmers need to ensure they are in the right scheme too. At present, the general trend is to opt for whichever certifier comes knocking first. As the market for sustainable cotton grows, so should choice – as much for the producer in the field as the customer in the shop.

Oliver Balch is a freelance writer specialising in the role of business in society.

Photo credit: CmiA; Jupiterimages/Creatas/Thinkstock

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