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The growth in ‘Better Cotton’ marks a win for all sustainable cotton — and that includes organic

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There has recently been a rapid growth in retailer demand for sustainable ‘Better Cotton’. As OCA we see this growth as a clear sign that cotton sector sustainability is gaining momentum. The continued rise of sustainable cotton, intertwined with renewed consumer consciousness, is a hallmark of the increasing importance of environmental and social values in the sector, and is likely to prove a boost for organic cotton as well.

Initiatives such as BCI and the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), while far from competing, strengthen each other’s hand and global norms on the road towards sustainability. Luckily, the ‘conscious cotton’ market is not a zero-sum game. The current trend indicates that brands are deepening their commitment and diversifying their sustainability portfolios through arrangements such as BCI. This is also explained by other retailers’ communiqués on organic cotton: C&A, for instance, has launched an effort to purchase only organic cotton by 2020. The growth of Better Cotton does not come at a cost to organic—but at a cost to the polluting, conventional cotton. A development that needs to be applauded and encouraged.

In this context it is important to reaffirm the key environmental merits of organic cotton. The BCI initiative, which teaches farmers to grow cotton using less pesticide and water, naturally marks a massive improvement over the pollution and abuses so typical of traditional cotton. Moreover, BCI’s achievements in setting standards for environmental, social and economic responsibility for more than 50 brands and nearly 700 suppliers are invaluable. As such, we see the growth of sustainable cotton as an encouraging stepping stone towards the ‘gold standard’ of organic cotton. Organic cotton offers a holistic perspective on farming, focusing on long-term soil health, not allowing for chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and safeguarding farmer health. Making the transition to organic cotton is critical: the devastating effects of pesticide use are painfully visible, for instance in the documentary ‘The True Cost’ – and even diminished pesticide use continues to exact a heavy price on the environment and health of local farmers and their communities. Achieving a truly sustainable cotton sector therefore requires investing in the business case of organic cotton farmers.

Growing demand is one way of improving the business case for the farmer. On the topic of demand, while 2016 did see a small decline (3.8%) in the production of organic cotton—mostly as a result of depressed prices for all cotton in India—the Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report 2016 notes that the market value of organic cotton remains stable at $15.76 billion, and moreover that organic products as a sector continues to experience significant and sustained growth. Indeed, the demand for organic cotton is only set to accelerate, given trends such as the rise of environmentally-conscious slow fashion, which will strengthen customers’ willingness to pay a premium for high-quality organic fashion.

In the coming 18 months OCA partners will prototype interventions that are expected to improve the business case for the organic cotton farmer. Interventions that are to be scaled and implemented sector-wide from 2018 onwards. OCA applauds the growth of BCI, and we are confident that together we will continue moving away from conventional cotton to a more sustainable sector.