As the Cotton 2040 initiative draws to a close after eight years of delivery, we reflect on the achievements and critical insights gained across our efforts. Forum’s Senior Sustainability Strategist, Neil Walker, shares his thoughts. Download the full Cotton 2040 impact report here. 

“Cotton 2040 was conceived because the story of cotton needed to change. [There are] too many fragmented initiatives not speaking to each other, no agreed metrics for reporting, and brands not understanding their last tier–producers.” - Anita Chester, Head of Fashion at Laudes Foundation 

Cotton is a key global commodity. It contributes to around a third of global textile fibre use, spanning health products to clothing to homeware, and its production uses 2.5% of arable land. That production supports 350 million people across 80 countries, and the industries related to cotton are worth more than $50 billion. Yet, similar to other agri-commodities, the crop’s global importance is accompanied by fragility and endemic issues of inequality, human rights abuses and degrading ecosystems. 

Forum for the Future started working on the Cotton 2040 initiative eight years ago to support the sustainability movement within cotton to face up to these significant challenges. Our goal was to accelerate and maximise progress and impact of existing sustainable cotton initiatives and action led by a broad range of value chain actors, including international brands, retailers, traders, processors and farmers. We envisaged a sustainable cotton industry which is resilient and adaptive in a changing climate, which uses business models that support sustainable production and sustainable livelihoods, and where sustainably produced cotton is the norm and sufficiently available. 


The following is a reflection of our key achievements.  

  1. Produced alongside our partners, WTW, a first-of-its-kind Global Cotton Climate Risk Tool maps climatic hazards expected across cotton-growing regions by 2040. Critically, it outlines the stark reality of the compounding climatic impacts felt across every region currently producing cotton, and highlights the need for a comprehensive future-facing approach to climate adaptation and resilience building in the cotton value chain. It highlights the imperative too, that cotton buying actors in the value chain cannot simply diversify supply chains away from high-risk areas, and that they must indeed more-readily collaborate with farming communities and the value chain at large to find ways to support sustainable production, for livelihood, nature and security of supply.

“Brands and retailers can support resiliency by implementing programmes, or arguably more importantly, integrating climate adaptation into existing programmes that address wider sustainability and social livelihood objectives.” Alastair Baglee | Senior Director at WTW Climate and Resilience Hub

  1. Recognising that sustainability efforts can oftentimes lack coordination, we engaged with the industry to demystify and remove barriers to the uptake of sustainable cotton. We worked with cotton and non-cotton standards to support the development of the Delta Framework, the first standardised way for commodity sectors to collect farm-level data, monitor and report progress on sustainability in the cotton industry, and over the last 3 years, alongside sustainability consultancy Anthesis, supported 11 brands across Asia and Europe increasing their commitment to and procurement of sustainable cotton. Now more than ever, with a fast growing array of regulations and disclosure requirements pressuring companies to get to grip with their procurement practices and supply chains, creating a credible and transparent framework for sustainability is critical in transforming the cotton industry.

“When we first started, we had no goals, now we have a target of 100% sustainable cotton by the end of 2023. Cotton 2040 gave us confidence to set targets and work out how to achieve it, including which cottons to consider sustainable.” Participating brand

  1. Beyond increasing the sustainability of the existing system of production and trade, transformational change to build resilience requires new ways of thinking, acting and doing business. It has become clear that taking a regenerative ecosystem service approach to production can create co-benefits, from restoring soil to reducing the cost of production and regenerating communities. However, this faces significant challenges.  
    We must ask ourselves: How do we measure and understand regenerative practices (such as those practised by Indigenous peoples for generations) and outcomes? How can we ensure that farmers are properly supported to transition, and how can all value chain actors benefit from this?  
    Within the context of this emergent and burgeoning scene, we have designed a regenerative cotton pilot across 2300 acres of land, incentivising farmers to adopt protocols through financing and technical support, and gaining commitments from forward facing brands to purchase the cotton quantity and credits. 

When so much effort is already being put towards change for the better, this call for a deep and urgent transformation to a just and regenerative cotton industry may, to some, seem far-fetched. But it’s precisely because these efforts are already in place and gaining momentum that such a change is possible - and many of the solutions are already starting to emerge. The Cotton 2040 Impact Report shares four top-line recommendations centred around:

  1. Enabling the shift from standards as an end goal to being the start of a journey to traceability, and moving towards the mass-scaling of much more sustainable ways of producing cotton. 

  1. Raising the level of ambition around cotton standards – to better enable brands and retailers to lead change. 

  1. Calling for a shift in consumer mindsets and narratives, which in turn will enable SMEs to also lead and adopt in the face of much-needed change. 

  1. Calling for transition finance and de-risking options which enable producers to start and scale regenerative agriculture 

If we can lift our level of ambition from reducing or even eradicating harm to creating a cotton sector that actually contributes to planetary and human thriving, a whole new vision and set of possibilities emerge. 

This article contains insights from Forum for the Future and Laudes Foundation’s Cotton 2040 Learning and Impact Report. The Impact Report also includes resources developed by the team that will help others to move forward in the industry. For more detailed learnings and to explore four key recommendations for the cotton sector, download the report here 

Forum for the Future continues to work on reimagining the future of value chains, including delivering projects in Latin America, the US and South-East Asia. For more information, contact Hannah Cunneen.