The challenge

Climate change and drought, food security for a growing population, human rights, biotechnology, ‘fast fashion’, the circular economy - these and other factors and trends are combining to create many long-term risks and opportunities for the cotton industry.

There are excellent initiatives out there that aim to build better resilience for the sector, navigate it through an uncertain future and ensure that it continues to thrive within our planet’s limitations. Change is urgently needed for farmers, the environment and the textile industry to safeguard its long-term viability. However, given the sheer scale and complexity of the challenge, existing efforts aren’t making it happen at the speed and scale that we need.

Cotton 2040

Cotton 2040 is a unique cross-industry partnership, bringing together leading international brands and retailers, cotton standards, existing industry initiatives and other stakeholders across the supply chain.

The initiative is convened by Forum for the Future, with support from the C&A Foundation, and aims to maximise and accelerate current sustainability initiatives in the global cotton industry and drive more sustainable cotton firmly into the mainstream. By bringing industry stakeholders together, and aligning efforts in priority areas for action, it seeks to ensure that their collective impact is more than the sum of their parts.

Through research and close consultation with many stakeholders in 2015-16, we identified a set of four priority areas for cross-industry action with the potential to create a systemic shift in cotton. These workstreams will be pre-competitive, action-driven collaborations: bringing together a number of organisations across multiple sectors for collective action.

The first of these, ‘Building Demand for sustainable cotton’ began work early in 2017 and we continue to welcome new partners. In December 2017 we will be convening a high-level meeting on building resilience of smallholder cotton farmers.

The four proposed workstreams are:

Building demand for sustainable cotton

Shaping the nature of the demand for sustainable cotton in the fashion and apparel industry is critical to transforming the system. This workstream is working on enabling industry professionals to more easily develop and implement cotton sourcing strategies, particularly ones involving more than one standard.

We are working on a cross-standard sustainable cotton sourcing guide which will enable brands and retailers to gather vital information to develop a sustainable cotton sourcing strategy.

A preview of the beta version of the guide takes place on 10th October at the Textile Exchange conference and from late 2017, brands, retailers and others in the supply chain will be able to pilot the beta guide internally. In 2018, we will finalise the sourcing guide and launch a collaborative industry outreach campaign to drive awareness of the importance of sustainable cotton sourcing, and to enable faster uptake across the sector.
The active working group includes brands and retailers M&S and Target; industry standards Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), organic standards (represented by Textile Exchange), the Fairtrade Foundation, industry initiatives Cotton Connect, IDH, Cotton Australia, Proudly Made in Africa and Organic Cotton Accelerator as well as the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL.

Get involved: We are inviting further brands and retailers to join us in shaping and piloting this guide, and to share their stories to provide a rich narrative of the sustainable cotton sourcing journey so that others can learn and go further, faster.

Upskilling for resilience

The long-term viability of the cotton industry relies on the ability of farmers and farming communities to be resilient in a changing world. This workstream will focus on creating a cross-industry forum to build resilience among smallholder cotton farmers.

Aim: To create a cross-industry forum that will collectively address the systemic challenges to empowering and building resilience in cotton farming communities.

In December, 2017, we will be convening a high-level roundtable to develop this forum, made possible with funding from Burberry.

The key questions emerging which call for collaborative action are:

  • What does a resilient farming community look like?
  • How can we remove the dependency of support, and better empower smallholder farmers and farming communities to better prepare for the impacts of climate change?
  • How can we draw upon lessons learned from cross-industry standards and the wider industry to build resilience into programmes and initiatives?

Get involved: We are inviting brands, retailers and other stakeholders who have serious interest in being involved in a unique cross-industry initiative on this issue to contact us to discuss participation in the roundtable event.

Cotton recycling and circularity

The recapture and reuse of cotton fibres in textiles has the potential to transform the cotton industry and yield significant sustainability benefits for the sector. This workstream will focus on developing chemical textile-to-textile recycling as a key enabler in circularity.


Difficulties with traceability of cotton across the supply chain create significant barriers to uptake. This workstream will initially focus on the establishment of a common traceability interface to make it easier for brands and retailers to purchase sustainable cotton across multiple standards, and simpler for producers to manage data entry. It will also focus on helping brands and suppliers to develop internal data systems to support greater use of sustainable cotton.


Read the full workstream proposals.

Read a more detailed FAQ on the Building Demand workstream.


Get involved

We are looking for ambitious and leading organisations with resources, expertise and drive to take action in one or more of these four areas together. In particular, we are inviting organisations to get involved in the ‘Building Demand’ workstream and create a more sustainable future for cotton. We are also interested in speaking with brands, retailers, NGOs and others interested in supporting collective industry action to benefit the long term resilience of smallholder cotton farmers.

Get in touch with Charlene Collison, Associate Director for Sustainable Supply Chains and Livelihoods at Forum for the Future.

The story so far

Since February 2015, Forum has been working with stakeholders from across the cotton industry to identify areas for action and assess the appetite for sector-wide collaboration. Together we affirmed the need to integrate efforts and “pull in the same direction” to achieve greater and faster progress, by building on existing initiatives and facilitating co-ordination and greater alignment between them.

With the expertise of our Futures team, we developed and explored four potential scenarios for the cotton industry in 2040. By analysing these possible scenarios, we identified significant future risks and challenges, as well as key areas for collaborative action.

We also mapped current sustainability initiatives across the cotton value chain and conducted a series of interviews and surveys with stakeholders and experts to identify gaps, opportunities and priority areas. This helped us to pinpoint where we could create most impact by accelerating and scaling up current initiatives to create an industry-wide shift towards sustainability.

Through our analysis and supporting data, we identified the four workstreams above. These have been reviewed and tested with stakeholders and we are now inviting firm expressions of intent from stakeholders to take them forward together.

To discuss joining, or for more information, email Charlene Collison

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