Most textile-apparel brands are failing on sustainable cotton benchmarks, a recent survey of as many as 37 international brands has found. Lack of uptake of more sustainable cotton is being seen as a massive missed opportunity. Subir Ghosh leafs through the 36-page report.
The problem with buzzwords is that they invariably whip up such a mindless frenzy and needless hype that people often forget what was it that had resulted in the creation of that buzzword in the first place. That's what is increasingly happening with "sustainability". Critics argue that so mired are companies with the "ends" in mind that the "means" are not being adequately kept track of. Many forget that sustainability is not an end in itself, but the means towards an end: a better world that is free and fair to one and all.
Every now and then, companies need to ask themselves, or maybe to others: is it (what we are doing) working at all? A recent survey of 37 well-known international brands indicates that it, unfortunately, is not. The majority of international companies using most cotton globally are failing to deliver on cotton sustainability, the study 'Sustainable Cotton Ranking: Assessing company performance' has revealed.
Just eight companies out of the 37 surveyed made it out of the red zone in the ranking research conducted by Rank a Brand, one of Europe's largest brand-comparison sites on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), Solidaridad, and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had commissioned Rank a Brand to research major cotton-using companies in primarily three areas: policies, actual uptake, and traceability. Most points were awarded for sourcing and use, with the companies being assessed according to volumes used from Better Cotton, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Organic, and Fairtrade-the four standards reckoned to be sustainable for the research in question.
Of the 37 companies evaluated, only eight companies scored at least 3.0 out of the maximum 19.5 points. Only home furnishing giant Ikea, which topped the ranking, scored in the green zone with 12 points. C&A (9), H&M (9) and Adidas (7.75) followed next in the yellow zone, while Nike (6.75), M&S (5.5), VF Corporation (3.25), and Kering (3) were in the orange zone. Another 29 companies found themselves in the red zone and appeared to do virtually nothing on cotton sustainability.
The report remarked, "While there are multiple companies that work hard to set the right example, there is significant room and need for improvement in company sourcing and reporting on sustainable cotton, as well as an opportunity to drive market transformation. This research highlights positive developments and outcomes in regards to these companies' achievements in sustainable cotton. This research clearly demonstrates the widespread absence of publicly available information, concerning the topics addressed for the research conducted for this report. While major brands and manufacturers have published various policies regarding commitments to using more sustainable cotton, traceability throughout the entire supply chain of cotton is necessary to further report on the uptake and implementation of these policies."
The usage statistics of sustainable cotton, surprisingly, are appalling. Although about 13 per cent of the total cotton is grown more sustainably the world over, only one-fifth of this amount is actually sourced by apparel companies for their products. The report pointed out the dire need for brands to pull up their socks, "International clothing companies have the opportunity to play a crucial role in securing the future of the sustainable cotton market, reducing cotton's environmental impact and improving labour conditions. However, companies are actively sourcing less than a fifth of available sustainable cotton with the remainder sold as conventional cotton. Without demand from buyers, sustainable cotton will remain a niche product and the cotton industry's social and environmental problems will persist."
Sustainability is here to stay
Richard Holland, Director (Global Markets), WWF, responds to questions on behalf of all four organisations that were involved in the study.
Sustainability has been a business buzzword for a while. On the face of it, most brands seem sincere when talking about it. Given that, it comes as a surprise that big brands have failed so miserably. Is it because brands still see sustainability as just one way of doing business, rather than the only way of doing business?
The Cotton Ranking Report shows that a relatively small number of companies with consumer-facing brands are serious in word and deed. Ikea, C&A, H&M, Adidas, Nike and M&S are all examples of companies that have been working for many years to source more sustainable cotton for their products and the results are clear in the report. Only the top eight companies have publicly reported on sourcing more sustainable cotton, which means a further 29 are not living up to customers' expectations.
One cannot become a sustainable brand overnight. Surely it takes time, and a relative assessment would be more fair than an absolute one. How did you look at this aspect when studying the brands?
It has taken about 10 years for relatively large volumes of more sustainable cotton (Better Cotton, organic cotton, CmiA and Fairtrade) to become available from farmers in key producing countries such as India and Pakistan. Now that about 12 per cent of supply is from these sources-largely Better Cotton-it has never been easier for companies to increase the sustainability of the cotton in their products. Even companies that are new to sustainable sourcing can achieve significant results within a couple of years of starting on the journey. Of course, sourcing more sustainable cotton doesn't make a brand sustainable in itself, as there are other issues to be addressed as well-think about the challenges in manufacturing, or with other fibres, or the waste of products after use. But procuring sustainable cotton is an important step on the way to becoming a trustworthy brand.
If just eight companies out of 37 do not find themselves in the red zone, it is clear that industry is lagging behind both in terms of standards as well as expectations. How does Rank a Brand along with its three partners plan to push industry towards meeting those benchmarks?
Pan UK, Solidaridad and WWF who commissioned Rank a Brand to undertake the research intend to publish a second version of the study in 2017 and to include a wider range of large consumer-facing companies. In addition, the three organisations are also working to advise a range of companies on ways to increase their sourcing of more sustainable cotton, and in working in key platforms such as the Better Cotton Initiative which brings together producers, trade and suppliers, and retailers and brands to push this agenda forward.
Do you think "sustainability" has become an escape word? Many companies, not just those who use cotton, talk about it all the time, but ground realities seem to suggest that many of them have not a clue about what sustainability ought to be. What is your take on the issue?
Sustainability is here to stay. Indeed, when 193 governments of the world came together in September 2015 to adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals, this signalled a new phase in action to make this the leading paradigm for the coming 15 years for rich and poor countries alike.
The one factor that clearly emerges going by the three parameters that were used in the study is that there's a problem with transparency. How transparent can a company be? Surely companies need to balance it with their business secrets / interests?
We know from the world of accounting that transparent and credible reporting is vital to protect the interests of owners and clients of companies. In the same way that companies are required to report their annual financial results, it is increasingly common that they report nonfinancial results as well, especially on sustainability issues that have material impact on the success (or risk to) a business. The Global Reporting Initiative provides guidelines-developed in close collaboration with companies and other stakeholders-that make it straight-forward for companies to identify the key sustainability data they should be disclosing in annual reports to their owners, clients and customers.
Taking off from your 'Mind the Gap' report and now this one, what's your next step?
We plan to update the market data provided in the 'Mind the Gap' report and to publish in 2017 a second version of the Sustainable Cotton Ranking study and to include a wider range of large consumer-facing companies. Meanwhile we will continue the discussion with companies and other stakeholders in the cotton sector.