Organisations around the globe are introducing solutions to create sustainability in farming. Some focus on irrigation techniques to save water, or on the management of soil nutrients to ensure productive fields without using pesticides. Others help strengthen communities through fair trade or improved labour laws.
The Better Cotton Initiative takes a holistic approach to sustainable cotton cultivation by training farmers to grow cotton in a more environmentally, socially and economically responsible way.
BCI aims to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. To achieve this mission, they bring together cotton’s complex supply chain, from farmers to retailers, in an effort to increase commitment to and sourcing of sustainable cotton (see box 1).
C&A leads the way in sustainable cotton
Providing consumers with Better Cotton is one of our top priorities at C&A, and it shows. For 2015 – in addition to being named the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton by Textile Exchange – C&A was also presented with BCI’s Best Starter Award.
The Best Starter Award is given each year to the brand that procures the most Better Cotton lint within the first year of membership to BCI. In 2015, C&A purchased more than 3,000 tonnes of BCI cotton. That put C&A in the top 10 volume buyers among BCI member brands.
For C&A, the award marks an important milestone. Through BCI, C&A is able to acquire a greater variety of more sustainable cotton fibre from a greater number of sources. This helps us to continue our progress towards our 2020 goals, which include sourcing 100% of our cotton – and 67% of all our raw materials – from more sustainable sources.
The fabric of the Better Cotton Initiative
In 2005, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) was born out of a ‘round table’ initiative led by WWF which convened world experts on different commodities with the goal of finding more sustainable solutions for farmers, for the environment, and for the future of each sector. BCI now includes over 500 industry leaders, like adidas, C&A, Gap, H&M, Nike and Levi Strauss—all of whom are committed to procuring Better Cotton—as well as international NGOs such as WWF and Solidaridad.
BCI brings together farmers, ginners, traders, spinners, mills, cut & sew manufacturers, retailers, brands and grassroots organisations in a unique global community committed to developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.
The Better Cotton Standard System provides a global definition of Better Cotton through six key principles. By adhering to these principles, Better Cotton farmers produce cotton in a way that is measurably better for the environment and farming communities. For example, they are trained to use water and pesticides more efficiently, promote safe working conditions and care for the health of the soil. By using a holistic approach, BCI aims to make cotton cultivation better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grow in, and better for the sector’s future.
A new standard for Better Cotton
A central component of BCI is the Better Cotton Standard System. The standard includes Better Cotton Production Principles and Criteria that lay out the global definition of Better Cotton. To earn a license, farmers must demonstrate that they adhere to these principles, which aim to make cotton production better for the environment and farming communities. Retailers and brands around the globe are encouraged to procure Better Cotton. When brands communicate their membership to BCI, consumers know that these brands are committed to sustainable cotton production (see box 2).
The standard can also be applied to the many different scales of cotton production – from smallholder farms in Mali, Mozambique and Tajikistan to large, industrialized operations in Brazil and China. It is methodologically neutral regarding how its production principles are met, inclusively allowing room for other standards to be used as well (see box 3).
Protecting the rights of children
One of the principles supporting Better Cotton is the promotion of Decent Work. This covers a number of areas, from occupational health and safety, to eliminating discrimination and child labour.
The classrooms used to be almost empty during the cotton harvest in the Rayagada area of India, because the children were in the fields, assisting their families. This had obvious ramifications for the children’s education and future development.
To address this, BCI’s Implementing Partner (IP) Solidaridad launched a series of coordinated campaigns on child labour in Rayagada and nearby Gunupur. The campaigns targeted the children, their parents and the wider community, with the aim of fostering a better understanding of the rights of children to be children.
The result was a verifiably positive response. The campaigns helped parents to understand that keeping children in school was a vital investment in their future. Following the campaign, almost all of the area schools reported 100% attendance.
"(We) worked with our local partner Pratibha Syntex to organize special rallies in the village. Children came together to march… Students also held debates… And also very importantly, we worked with the illiterate parents in the village showing videos on child labour."
Wisely managing water supplies
Another principle Better Cotton promotes is the efficient use of water and the care of local water supplies.
In Yazman, Pakistan, it’s not always easy to find water, let alone maintain the levels required for agriculture. Cotton, in particular, requires a regular supply of water. Otherwise, yields remain low, making it difficult for a farmer to support a family. After a year of particularly low cotton yields, farmer Muhammad Ramzan was ready to switch to a crop that needed less water.
Instead, he found help from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – a BCI Implementing Partner – who was helping farmers in the area learn simple, cost-effective techniques to use water efficiently, as well as to actively ensure the steady availability of water.
By using techniques such as converting flat sowing to furrows and ridges, Muhammad cut in half the amount of water he needed to irrigate his land. He also found that these techniques were gentle on the soil, and avoided adverse effects on the groundwater supply or nearby bodies of water. In addition, his cotton yields increased this year.
"I acted upon the advice of WWF even though this was a new technique for me. This was a turning point in my cotton growing history. The irrigation efficiency of my farm doubled and I saved money and time – and the most important thing, my children went back to school."
– Muhammad Ramzan, farmer of five acres in Yazman, Pakistan
But does the Better Cotton Initiative succeed?
The Better Cotton Initiative has been very succesful. More and more certified Better Cotton is coming onto the market. In 2015, 2.6 MT of Better Cotton lint was produced. That’s 11.9% of global cotton production. BCI saw a 23% increase in participating farmers and a 34% rise in lint, year-on-year (Figures are based on 2015 projected figures). By 2020, the goal is to have 30% of all cotton on the market be BCI.
With its global reach, its ambitious goals, its influential partners and focus on continuous improvement and measurable results, the Better Cotton Initiative is well on its way to creating long-term and transformative change in the organic sector benefiting everyone, from the farmer to the consumer.
"Before the Better Cotton Initiative and (BCI IP) Trident, I was not that aware of agronomic improvements. Now my life has been changed by savings I make on input costs for pesticides, fertilisers, water and labour, plus an increase in the yield of my cotton."
– Bhupinder Singh, farmer of five acres in Rau Wala, India
Examples of BCI at work
- Less wasted water (China) – BCI farmers in China used 16% less water than those not using BCI techniques (2014).
- Reduced chemical pesticide use (Pakistan) – BCI farmers in Pakistan increased crop yields, using 15% less harmful chemical pesticides than non-BCI farmers (2014).
- Increased use of organic fertiliser (India): BCI farmers in India improved soil quality naturally, using 68% more organic fertilizer than farmers not using BCI techniques (2014).
- Improved profitability (China) – BCI farmers in China had more money to spend on their families, because their farms were 32% more profitable than non-BCI farmers (2014).
- Improved yield (Mali) – BCI farmers in Mali had more cotton to sell and greater earnings, because they had 15% greater crop yields than farmers not using BCI techniques (2014).
- Number of farmers (global) – Based on projected figures, in 2015, BCI licensed 1.5 million Better Cotton farmers around the world. They are able to reach this many farmers and their families through the support of members like C&A and through public-private partnerships. Funds are channelled into the supply of Better Cotton through farm-level training and verification.
- Volume of Better Cotton (global) – Two million metric tonnes of Better Cotton were produced in 2014.
The BCI production principles
The Better Cotton Initiative relies on six production principles and criteria to define their global cotton Standard. According to these, Better Cotton is produced by farmers who:
1. Minimize harmful crop protection practices, viz. pesticides
2. Use water efficiently, and care for the availability of water
3. Care for the health of the soil
4. Conserve natural habitats, e.g. preserve biodiversity
5. Preserve and care for the quality of the fibre
6. Promote Decent Work, e.g.:
- Freedom of association
- No child labour
- No forced labour
- No discrimination
- No corporal punishment
- No sexual harassment
For more information on the BCI production principles, please see: http://bettercotton.org/about-better-cotton/better-cotton-standard-system/production-principles-and-criteria/
Does BCI compete with other sustainable cotton standards?
The short answer is “No.” The Better Cotton Initiative is designed to complement – rather than compete – with other standards for sustainable cotton.
In fact, BCI collaborates with both the Fairtrade and Organic movements, and has partnership and recognition agreements with various other responsible sourcing programs around the globe, including MyBMP in Australia, ABR in Brazil, and Cotton made in Africa.
That’s because BCI provides a system that enables sector-wide improvement in the production of cotton. The aim is to transform the entire industry, not simply a particular niche. BCI leaves it to the farmers to choose the most appropriate technology or method, allowing them to decide which type of sustainable farming is best suited to them and their needs.