Cotton is one of the world’s leading commodities and its production can be associated with significant social, environmental and economic impacts. Here, programme facilitators Neil Walker from Forum for the Future and Nicola Thornley from Anthesis reflect on what we’ve achieved in the initiative in building uptake of sustainable cotton with 11 brands and retailers, and identify opportunities for growth. For more information on the Cotton 2040 initiative, click here.

Cotton is ubiquitous - most of us touch it every day - but its production can come with unacceptably high impacts. Around 30 million hectares are planted with this foundational global commodity, accounting for more than 2% of total arable land, grown in over 80 countries, and supporting the livelihoods of over 350 million people, including between 50 to 100 million farmers. The textile sector, of which cotton makes up 30% of all fibres, is responsible for 10% of global annual carbon emissions, more than maritime shipping and air travel combined. The scale of change needed to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate is significant and requires concerted and systemic action. One way to move the industry in the right direction is the procurement of more sustainably produced cotton. However, although production of more sustainable cotton has never been higher, only 25% of what was available was actively sourced by companies in 2020. 

Sustainable cotton is grown in a way that can maintain levels of production with minimal environmental impact, can support viable producer livelihoods and communities, and can do so in the face of long-term ecological constraints and socioeconomic pressures.

Cotton Up Guide

In the first article of our three-part thought leadership series on the Cotton 2040 programme, we outlined three principles that enabled the initiative to move towards deeper and collaborative action. Here, we focus on what we set out to achieve, and reflect on the impact of Cotton 2040’s learning cohort in supporting a more just, regenerative and resilient cotton industry.

Putting systemic change at the heart of our goals

At the outset of the programme, cotton baseline data gathered by Cotton 2040 partner Anthesis demonstrated that despite significant messaging in the apparel sector around the potential and need for sustainable cotton, relatively few retailers incorporate sustainable procurement within their sourcing strategies. To address this, we set out to bring together a group of brands who sourced large volumes of cotton, but were not procuring from sustainable sources, to form a Cotton 2040 learning cohort. Of these eleven brands, the majority had little knowledge of the options and opportunities available for sourcing more sustainable cotton, what factors to consider if weighing up different certifications or schemes, and how this might support storytelling and marketing. 

Our desired outcome was that brands participating in Cotton 2040 would not only increase their own volumes of sustainably sourced cotton but would also wield their influence to actively challenge industry narratives on barriers to the uptake of sustainable cotton, built around a clear case for increasing uptake.

Shifting knowledge, capacity and procurement: Cotton 2040 impacts

So what did our collaboration accomplish? There are tangible improvements. All of the brands within the learning cohort now have sustainable sourcing strategies and practices, with ambitions to increase the volume of sustainably produced cotton to an average of 85% of their cotton mix by 2025.

“Cotton 2040 encouraged us to actively and intentionally increase our volume of sustainable cotton… but there are still many issues to address to increase the ratio of sustainable cotton.” - Cotton 2040 Participant

A key concern of Cotton 2040 brands, and the wider apparel industry, has been around the traceability of cotton and therefore the assurance of its sustainability credentials, as well as having the visibility to make more meaningful impacts further up the supply chain. At the outset of the programme, 70% of the more sustainable cotton brands were sourcing via a mass balance system – a system whereby sustainably grown cotton is mixed with conventional fibre before moving through the supply chain. Brands receive ‘credits’ for the more sustainable cotton that is used in their garments but have no way of tracing the cotton. With increased knowledge around the impacts of conventional cotton, the ambition to source more traceable fibres was apparent in the brands, who through sourcing strategies created during the programme, shifted 10% of their mass balance sourcing to more traceable cotton fibres.

Beyond the statistics of our work, we also helped the brands to achieve increased knowledge and capacity around both sustainability and sustainable cotton more broadly. Although it is more difficult to measure this outcome, it is demonstrated by the changed ambition of many of the members of the cohort. Whilst mass balance is the easiest and quickest way to claim procurement of sustainable cotton, it has issues surrounding lack of verification of origin and has come under increased scrutiny. Through Cotton 2040’s continued engagement with the brands, there was a clear change in ability to analyse different options, such as organic, recycled or segregated procurement.

“We have changed through the programme by opening our procurement of sustainable cotton to in-conversion organic, but there are still issues with price and volume.” - Cotton 2040 Participant

When we interviewed some of the brands and retailers within the learning cohort, their answers highlighted progress made through the initiative but also some of the challenges they faced. Although brands are now willing and able to procure sustainable cotton, there remains a significant concern around both the price of procurement, especially via certification standards, and the volume available to buy. 

Improving visibility and transparency along supply chains that are historically and typically opaque and complex, provides brands with supply chain line-of-sight on tier four suppliers, which include producers and farming communities. This can enable brands and retailers to have more collaborative and targeted action, build farmer resilience, whilst also improving sustainability practices, beneficial for both quality and storytelling. Cost, of course, may be a factor, however it is possible that a higher level of investment in the short-term could reap significant adaptation and procurement benefits in the long-term. The Cotton 2040 initiative explores this in greater detail through its Climate Adaptation workstream. 

By the end of the programme, the learning cohort of brands and retailers publicly committed to sourcing sustainable cotton, either via joining a certification scheme, press releases or formal announcements. Although small in number, several of the brands operate in markets in which sustainability is not yet of significant consumer preference or pressure, and several are large-scale in volume and household names in reputation in their markets. Making such commitments and taking action on sustainability publicly can add to growing momentum around sustainability and a just and regenerative industry. 

We do believe there is more work to be done to challenge traditional narratives and continue advancing the industry as a whole toward a better future. Examples of initiative such as the Sustainable Cotton Challenge 2025 by our colleagues at the Textile Exchange are encouraging ambition and for brands to act as champions, and these interventions are crucial to continue moving the industry forward at the pace needed. 

What’s the future of the cotton industry?

Sourcing cotton sustainably doesn’t start with a single solution. It requires a recognition that, to be viable in the future, the cotton system needs to change, and that individual companies are increasingly accountable for playing their part. Reducing the barriers to procuring sustainable cotton is just one, albeit important, piece of unlocking the puzzle. In our next article, we will explore the wider vision and potential for the cotton industry going forward, hearing from Charlene Collison, Associate Director for Sustainable Value Chains and Livelihoods at Forum for the Future.

We would like to extend our sincere thanks and gratitude to our partners at Anthesis for collaborating on this series and leading in the support for brands and retailers through the Cotton 2040 initiative.

This blog is part two of a three-part series focusing on the Cotton 2040 initiative. In this series, we discuss what was learned in starting the collaborative, what the brands were able to achieve, and finally, how we see the cotton sector evolving. For more information on the initiative, please visit the Cotton 2040 page. If you’d like to get in touch with Cotton 2040’s Project Manager, please contact Neil Walker at [email protected]

You Can Still Join our Masterclasses… 

Join over 200 brands and retailers in our Cotton 2040 Masterclass series.

Building on the insights from the first-ever global analysis of the impacts of climate change on global cotton production published by the Cotton 2040 initiative, Forum and WTW are delighted to co-host a series of practical, “Insights to Action” masterclasses on climate risks to the cotton sector. Designed specifically for brands and retailers, the masterclass series will be delivered by leading subject-matter experts from WTW’s Climate and Resilience Hub, and Forum for the Future.  

The two remaining interactive masterclass sessions will be held on Tuesday 25 and Thursday 27 October at 13:00-13:45 BST, and will last for 30 minutes, including optional time for questions.   

Register here