Today Better Cotton is grown in 24 countries around the world and accounts for 20% of global cotton production. In the 2020-21 cotton season, 2.2 million licensed farmers grew 4.7 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton.
Today Better Cotton has more than 2,400 members, reflecting the breadth and diversity of the industry. Members of a global community that understands the mutual benefits of sustainable cotton farming. The moment you join, you become part of this too.
We are pleased to announce that our Senior Director, Data and Traceability, Alia Malik, has joined the International Cotton Association (ICA) as a new board member. The ICA is an international cotton trade association and arbitral body and was set up 180 years ago in 1841 in Liverpool, UK.
The mission of ICA is to protect the legitimate interests of all those who trade cotton, whether buyer or seller. It has more than 550 members from around the world and it represents all sectors of the supply chain. According to the ICA, the majority of the world’s cotton is traded internationally under ICA Bylaws & Rules.
Comprising 24 board members, the new board “continues to represent the ICA’s global membership across all sectors of the supply chain and builds on its commitment to engage the entire global cotton community.”
By Nick Gordon, Traceability Programme Officer, Better Cotton
Cotton can be one of the most challenging commodities to trace. The geographical journey of a cotton t-shirt can span three continents before it reaches the shop floor, often changing hands seven times or more. Agents, intermediaries and traders operate at every stage, providing fundamental services from assessing quality to linking farmers and other players to markets. And there’s no one clear path – cotton bales from different countries can be spun into the same yarn and sent to multiple different mills to be woven into fabric. This makes it challenging to trace the cotton in any given product back to its source.
To enable the physical tracing of cotton, Better Cotton is developing its own traceability capability through the existing Better Cotton Platform, set to launch in late-2023. To support this, we’ve created a series of supply chain maps to better understand the realities of key cotton trading countries. We’ve used data insights, stakeholder interviews, and the experiences of local supply chain actors to shed light on how things work in different countries and regions, and identify the key challenges to traceability.
Central to the programme will be our evolving Chain of Custody Standard (which is currently out for public consultation). This will prompt operational changes for manufacturers and traders alike. It’s vital the Standard acknowledges regional variation and is achievable for suppliers in the Better Cotton network. We’ll keep applying the knowledge and lessons we’re learning to ensure any changes meet the wants and needs of Better Cotton stakeholders.
What have we learnt so far?
Informal economies play an important role in Better Cotton producing countries
It’s no secret that enabling traceability is more straightforward in larger, vertically integrated supply networks. The fewer times material changes hands, the shorter the paper trail, and the greater likelihood of being able to trace cotton back to its source. However, not all transactions are equally documentable, and the reality is that informal work acts as a crucial support mechanism for many smaller actors, connecting them with resources and markets.
Traceability should empower people who are already often marginalised by global supply chains and protect smallholders’ access to markets. Engaging with stakeholders and responding to their needs and concerns is a critical first step in making sure these voices don’t go unheard.
It’s important to create the right digital solutions
New, innovative technology solutions are available for use in the cotton supply chain – everything from smart devices and GPS technology on farms to state-of-the-art integrated computer systems on the factory floor. However, not all actors in the sector – many of whom are smallholder farmers or small to medium-sized businesses – have embraced technology to the same extent. When introducing a digital traceability system, we need to consider varying levels of digital literacy, and make sure any system we introduce is readily understandable and easy to use, while also fitting the needs of users. In particular, we’re conscious that the gaps are greatest at the early stages of the supply chain, among cotton farms and ginners, for example. Yet it’s precisely at these stages that we need the most accurate data – this is essential to ensuring physical traceability.
Better Cotton will be testing two new traceability platforms in an India pilot this year. Prior to roll out of any new digital system, capacity building and training will be crucial.
Economic challenges are changing behaviours in the marketplace
The impact of the pandemic, coupled with challenging economic conditions, are changing behaviours in cotton supply chains. For example, in light of fluctuating cotton prices, yarn producers in certain countries are replenishing stocks at a more cautious pace than others. Some suppliers are concentrating on long-term supplier relationships, or searching for new supply networks. Predicting how much customers might order is becoming less easy, and for many, margins remain low.
Amid this uncertainty, the opportunity to sell physically traceable cotton could offer a market advantage. So, in the same way that cultivating Better Cotton helps farmers to achieve better prices for their cotton – 13% more for their cotton than conventional cotton farmers in Nagpur, according to a Wageningen University study – traceability also presents a real opportunity to create further value for Better Cotton Farmers. For example, carbon insetting frameworks, underpinned by a traceability solution, could reward farmers for implementing sustainable practices. Better Cotton is already engaging with all stakeholders across the supply chain to understand the business case for traceability and identify ways to increase value for members.
Better Cotton is currently revising its Chain of Custody Standard/Guidelines. The public consultation is now live and will conclude on 25 November 2022. Access the consultation, documents and related resources here.
The biggest change to Better Cotton’s Chain of Custody model in over a decade is coming, and we want you to help us shape it.
In late 2022, a new Chain of Custody (CoC) Standard—previously called the “CoC Guidelines”—will make important changes to the requirements that apply to all registered organisations operating in the Better Cotton supply chain.
In consultation with key stakeholders, Better Cotton periodically reviews and revises its CoC requirements to ensure its ongoing relevance, ability to connect demand with supply of Better Cotton, and support and incentivise farmers to adopt more sustainable practices.
The public consultation on the new CoC Standard is now live and is expected to conclude on 25 November 2022.
The proposed new standard is based on the final recommendations made by Chain of Custody Task Force that has worked to examine and recommend changes to version 1.4 of the CoC Guidelines in order to provide opportunities to physically trace Better Cotton. The Task Force includes Better Cotton’s member representatives from across the supply chain, including retailers and brands, ginners, spinners and traders.
Among other proposed changes, the draft introduces three new traceability models (in addition to Mass Balance): Segregation (Single Country), Segregation (Multi-Country) and Controlled Blending. Management system requirements have been harmonised, making it possible for suppliers to operate multiple CoC models at the same site.
This is your opportunity to shape improvements to the CoC, and ensure it is practical and achievable. Better Cotton needs to understand how ready supply chains are for this change, what support is needed, and whether the CoC Standard is feasible for suppliers.
Acute, unintentional pesticide poisoning is widespread among farmers and farm workers, with smallholder cotton farmers in developing countries particularly affected. Yet the full extent of health effects remains poorly understood.
Here, Better Cotton Council Member and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK International Project Manager, Rajan Bhopal, explains how a ground-breaking app stands to capture the human impact of pesticide poisoning. Rajan presented T-MAPP at the Better Conference in June 2022 during a lively ‘disruptors’ session.
Why is the issue of pesticide poisoning largely invisible?
The term ‘pesticides’ covers a huge range of products containing varied chemistry, meaning the many signs and symptoms of poisoning can be difficult for clinicians to diagnose if they are not aware of the issue. In addition, many farmers suffer health impacts without seeking treatment, particularly in remote, rural areas, where communities lack access to affordable medical services. Too many cotton producers accept these effects as part of the job. And we know that where incidents are diagnosed by clinicians, they’re often not recorded systematically or shared with government ministries responsible for health and agriculture.
Existing health monitoring surveys can be challenging to conduct, analyse and report on. That’s why we’ve developed T-MAPP – a digital monitoring system that accelerates data collection and provides rapid analysis that turns data into accurate results on how pesticides are affecting farmers’ lives.
Tell us more about your new pesticide app
Known as T-MAPP, our app makes data collection on pesticides poisoning more efficient, enabling field facilitators and others to collect comprehensive data on the products, practices and locations that are linked to high rates of serious pesticide poisoning. This includes detailed information farms and crops, use of protective equipment, particular pesticides and how they’re being applied, and health impacts within 24 hours of exposure. Once the data is collected and uploaded, T-MAPP allows survey managers to see analysed results in real-time via an online dashboard. Importantly, this knowledge can be harnessed to identify which pesticide products are causing poisoning and inform more targeted support.
What have you discovered so far?
Using T-MAPP, we have interviewed 2,779 cotton producers in India, Tanzania and Benin. Cotton farmers and workers are suffering widespread pesticide poisoning with significant impacts on wellbeing and livelihoods. On average, two in five had suffered pesticide poisoning in the past year. Severe symptoms of poisoning were common. Some 12% of farmers reporting severe effects that include, for example, seizures, loss of vision, or persistent vomiting.
What is being done with this information, or how could it be used?
It’s helping us understand the extent and severity of acute pesticide poisoning and find ways to tackle the issue. In some countries, regulators have used the app to monitor pesticides post-registration. In Trinidad, for example, certain pesticides could be banned for causing high rates of poisoning. Sustainability organisations are using the app to identify high risk practices and target their farmer capacity building efforts. In India, for example, the data has helped Better Cotton to focus an awareness campaign on the risks of pesticide mixtures. Elsewhere, similar surveys in Kurdistan led governments to taking action to prevent children’s exposure and involvement in pesticide spraying.
What is your message for brands and retailers?
Invest in understanding and addressing the health and environmental issues in the cotton sector, include misuse of pesticides, which are likely to be occurring in your supply chain. And by supporting high-quality capacity building programmes, you’ll be helping to protect farmers’ health, livelihoods and ability to cultivate cotton in the future.
A new report published by Transformers Foundation investigates the use – and misuse – of data on the sustainability of the cotton sector, and aims to equip brands, journalists, NGOs, consumers, suppliers and others with the skills and understanding to use data accurately and transparently.
The report, Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation debunks some of the commonly-shared ‘facts’ about cotton and textile production, such as the idea that cotton is an inherently ‘thirsty crop’, or the amount of water required to create a t-shirt. It also addresses commonly-cited claims about the use of pesticides in cotton farming. In both cases – water and pesticides – the report aims to provide current and accurate claims along with advice on how to use them without misleading audiences.
Damien Sanfilippo, Better Cotton’s Senior Director, Programmes contributed to the report and is quoted throughout:
The authors end with a set of calls-to-action, including to:
Send in information and new data to the foundation
Make data about environmental impacts open-source and publicly available
Do you want to know what the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world is up to? Keep up to date with the latest developments and hear from BCI Farmers, Partners and Members in the new BCI Quarterly Newsletter. BCI Members also receive a Monthly Member Update.
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