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The Better Cotton Initiative – sustainable cotton for Adidas and others

With the Better Cotton Initiative, business enterprises like Adidas and H&M want to encourage more sustainable cotton production.

Cotton stands for good skin compatibility and high comfort of wear, which is why it remains the leading material used for textile manufacture worldwide, with more than 50 % of all textiles containing its soft white fibres. However, wearing cotton products is not without its own problems. The pesticides used extensively in cotton cultivation can adversely affect the health of those wearing the clothes. Moreover, cultivating the natural fibre consumes as much water as all the world’s private households put together, while the rising demand for cotton in emerging economies, above all China, is sending prices soaring.

Natural polluter with a feel-good factor

Higher prices for raw materials translate into higher production costs. Producers seek to defray at least part of these costs by raising their prices. Many consumers are also willing to pay more if they receive better quality – or to be more precise, when they know that the cotton they’re wearing has been sustainably produced, with certain environmental and social standards being met during cultivation. Because sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in the competition for customers in industrialised nations, especially in European countries, numerous producers are embracing the Better Cotton Initiative, which aims to reduce the environmental and social problems associated with cotton production.

Certificate for Sustainability

Along with WWF and the two Swedish enterprises H&M and IKEA, Adidas has contributed significantly to starting the initiative. These founding members committed themselves using more cotton that is cultivated with less water and pesticides. It should be possible to secure this across the entire production chain, as members of the initiative at all stages of production – from farmers and suppliers right through to the final buyers, the textile manufacturers themselves – can obtain BCI certification of their sustainability.

Sustainability has many dimensions

Another important aim of the initiative is to improve training for farmers, empowering them to practise ecologically sustainable cultivation. The initiative’s social component includes preventing child and forced labour and ensuring certain occupational health and safety standards are observed in the workplace. Compliance with these standards is ensured not only by a council of independent experts, but also through a complaints office, to which all parties involved in the process can turn to expose cases of bad practice.

Forgoing true sustainability

The benefits for the environment and the consumers remain mixed, however, as reducing pesticides does not mean they are completely eliminated. That would incur price rises for garments that even environmentally aware of customers could hardly accept. Adidas hopes to cover its entire demand for cotton with Better Cotton by 2018, while H&M will achieve this two years later. However, 100 % Better Cotton means that fully pesticide-free, organic cotton will no longer be used, but only BCI-certified cotton. And until that goal is reached, consumers have no way of ascertaining product quality when shopping, as Adidas and its consortium partners are not planning extra labelling for products made from Better Cotton.

August 2011

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