Cotton-sector supply chain moves towards sustainable future

8 December 2015
ITC News
Through collaboration across the cotton supply chain, the Better Cotton initiative is helping develop a more resilient sector, writes Ruchira Joshi.

What is a sustainability standard? In a nutshell it is a set of principles and criteria that define good social and environmental practices in a specific sector, crop or industry. Often these standards are voluntary and have been developed by a wide group of stakeholders. In most cases a verification programme has also been set up to assure compliance with the standard.

Sustainability standards can be used by businesses, governments, consumers, NGOs, the finance sector and other stakeholders to make sourcing decisions, filtering out undesirable products and raw materials, separating sustainable products from unsustainable ones and supporting market transformation towards more responsible products. Governments, by embedding sustainability standards within national policies, can demonstrate impact and increase adoption of positive practices.

The Better Cotton Standard System is a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production that covers the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. Each of the elements – from the production principles and criteria to the monitoring mechanisms, which show results and impact – work together to support the Better Cotton Standard System and the credibility of better cotton and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). The system is designed to ensure the exchange of good practices and to encourage the scaling up of collective action to establish cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

The BCI is a not-for-profit organization stewarding the global standards for better cotton and bringing together cotton’s complex supply chain. BCI exists to make global cotton production the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and for the sector’s future.

BCI expanded its membership base in the past five years to more than 600 organizations operating across the cotton supply chain; raised Better Cotton production to almost 9% of global cotton supply; and reached 1 million farmers. In promoting the adoption of the Better Cotton Standard and improving outcomes for cotton producers, BCI has learned three clear lessons.


No single actor could have achieved the results BCI has demonstrated in the past five years. An example of this is the up to 14% reductions in water and pesticide use by Better Cotton farmers in 2013 as compared to conventional farmers in India and Pakistan.

This has been made possible by the partners (not-for-profit and supply-chain actors) who train farmers, verifiers who visit the fields, and traders, spinners and brands who create market demand. Uniting the sector behind the common vision of 30% of global cotton supply as Better Cotton by 2020 is the only way in which BCI has been able to deliver results at scale.

The next major step will be for governments and other national organizations to embed Better Cotton production principles into national agricultural policies. An example of this is the Brazilian Cotton Growers Association (ABRAPA), a BCI partner which has benchmarked its programme with the Better Cotton Standard, which means that the ABRAPA standard is now equivalent to the Better Cotton standard, granting farmers in Brazil access to our growing member base as a market.


Sustainability standards are one of the few proven vehicles for making production and trade more sustainable. However, there remains a critical need to understand more about the impacts and long-term outcomes of implementation on the ground. Governments have an obligation to demonstrate that their policies deliver real changes in producers’ lives. By illustrating impact and sharing information with governments, BCI can show how Better Cotton is making a demonstrable difference. BCI is currently participating in two such impact assessments: with the Copenhagen Business School in Punjab/Gujarat, India, and in Punjab/Sindh, Pakistan; and with Greenwich University’s Natural Resources Institute in Andhra Pradesh, India (2015-2018).


Ultimately, for any standard system to be successful each actor in the value chain has to derive value from participation. The cost of delivering a more sustainable raw material must be embedded in the course of business as usual. To this end, BCI has introduced a volume-based fee to be charged to retailers on the basis of their Better Cotton consumption. The fee is collected into a fund and reinvested in farmer training and monitoring. Over time as more brands join BCI and uptake increases, the fee can be dropped.

Through collaboration between actors in the cotton supply chain, BCI truly believes that Better Cotton can become a mainstream commodity while helping to build a resilient cotton sector.