This year BCI turns 10 years old.Over the course of the year,we will be publishing a series of articles, with input from key stakeholders who have been influential throughout BCI’s first decade – from partners, to civil society organisations, to retailers and brands. Although the series will predominately focus on the future,we will begin by celebrating and reflecting on the people and organisations who were with BCI at the beginning, and who shaped the initial path and course of action for BCI.
Cotton is the world’s most widely used natural fibre. Millions of smallholder farmers grow around 26m tonnes of cotton annually, facing challenges including water scarcity, pest pressure and unstable markets. Many live in poverty and lack access to the knowledge, tools and equipment to raise their yields or improve working conditions. In 2009, a visionary group of major apparel brands and retailers, farmers and NGOs formed the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to collectively transform the way cotton is grown, starting from the ground up. They set out to help cotton farmers grow Better Cotton – cotton grown in a way that is better for people and the environment. Today, the initiative is supported by more than 1,400 organisations, and 1.3m BCI Farmers are producing 3.3m tonnes of cotton annually. That’s 14% of global production.
Richard Holland of WWF, one of BCI’s founding partners, explains: ”Cotton is one of a number of crops that impacts on water systems. We wanted to find a solution that would support farmers and promote sustainable development, while conserving water availability and quality.”
For the leading brands involved from the start – including adidas, IKEA, M&S, Levi Strauss and H&M – this was more than a question of responding to stakeholder pressure to reduce the impact of their raw materials. This was a matter of supply chain resilience and business sustainability.
”Cotton is one of H&M group’s most important materials, so Better Cotton plays a key role in our goal to use only sustainably sourced cotton by 2020,” says Mattias Bodin, Sustainability Business Expert, Materials and Innovation at H&M group. ”BCI is enabling us and the industry to scale up the sourcing of sustainable materials.”
The journey was never going to be easy. Achieving the vision of Better Cotton representing 30% of global cotton production by 2020 would involve a huge collaborative effort to improve practices at field level. We would need to overcome the barriers experienced by smaller, existing sustainable cotton initiatives by creating a system that was accessible to smallholders and focused on continuous improvement.
Early BCI team members, including cotton expert Allan Williams, visited important production areas in Pakistan, India, Brazil and West Africa to understand their diverse challenges, and develop a global set of social and environmental principles that would define Better Cotton: the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria.
”It was an intense time, holing up for days to thrash out a system that would work for everyone and travelling widely to present it to local cotton industry participants and development experts,” he remembers. ”It was a great collaboration – we became close as a team, raising awareness of an important issue that we all felt strongly about.”
And with so many partners involved, there were inevitably tensions. To break the deadlock on key issues, an inclusive approach was pivotal. Sustainability expert Kathleen Wood, who facilitated those early sessions, says: ”Everyone had an equal say. It takes longer but you get richer solutions.”
Undertaking a journey of continuous improvement
As a small team, we forged a network of on-the-ground partners, Implementing Partners (IPs), to build farmers’ capacity. The IPs interpret the core principles of the standard in a credible, culturally relevant way for local farmers, with smallholders learning how to address their specific challenges through dedicated learning groups and practical demonstrations.
BCI’s Pakistan Country Manager, Shafiq Ahmad, says: ”It’s a great partnership, and we learn a lot from each other, but it’s not without difficulty. In Pakistan, for example, we need to focus on sustaining the commitment of seasonal field staff to BCI’s cause, particularly as we scale up.”
Ahmad’s team is currently working with the Australian growers association, Cotton Australia, to help Pakistani BCI Farmers learn from Australian farmers’ experiences in harnessing technology to address water and pest management.
Both the initial Better Cotton Fast Track Programme (funded by IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, ICCO, Rabobank Foundation and leading brands in 2010) and the successive Better Cotton Growth and Innovation Fund, established in 2016, have had a transformative impact on accelerating capacity-building. Lena Staafgard, BCI’s COO, recalls: ”Back in 2010, we had no results, BCI was just an idea on paper. But Joost Oorthuisen of IDH believed in the potential impact of the programme – together with ICCO and Rabobank Foundation they put ‚Ç¨20m on the table if the brands would match it. Their belief, together with the founding team’s audacity, has allowed us to achieve the impossible.”
Adopting a farmer-centric approach
BCI has kept farmers at the core of discussions from the outset. Holland notes that adopting basic practices – such as only spraying when the number of pests on plants posed a risk or lining plots with small barriers of stones to help retain water – quickly helps farmers to do more with less. ”This in turn encourages more farmers to get involved,” he says.
Many farmers remain unconvinced, however, reluctant to change and perceiving too heavy a risk in trying new practices. Encouraging them to participate is often an uphill struggle, and finding a compelling way to transform their mindsets is vital.
”One day I stopped to ask some cotton farmers how deep their well was,” says Ahmad. ”They told me it was at least 80ft, but had only been 20ft originally. I asked them: “If the water table has already dropped to this extent, what will the next generations do?’”
Gradually more farmers joined the programme, and by 2016, BCI had already reached more than 1m farmers, more than 99% of them smallholders. ”It’s not just the sheer reach of the programme,” says Williams. ”BCI is also delivering broader health and education benefits within BCI Farmers’ families and communities.”
Maximising the impact of apparel brands and retailers’ sourcing strategies
With significant purchasing power and influence, retailers and brands play a key role in driving change and accelerating demand for Better Cotton. BCI Retailer and Brand Members’ make financial contributions to farmer training, based on the volume of Better Cotton they source. This direct link to the farming communities ensures maximum value for farmers. As brands’ sustainable sourcing strategies build, BCI can expand training opportunities for farmers and help deliver larger volumes of Better Cotton to meet their needs.
”The brands see direct benefits – risk mitigation and improved visibility of their supply chain,” says Pramit Chanda, Country Director, India at IDH (the Sustainable Trade Initiative). ”They simply don’t have the resources to deliver farmer training at this scale, so BCI represents a cost-effective, pragmatic solution and is also a platform for shared solutions.”
Holland adds: ”Progressive brands are playing a meaningful role in transforming how raw materials are produced and that sets an example for the sector.”
Harnessing mass balance to boost demand
Better Cotton is kept separately from conventional cotton until it arrives at the spinning mills. From there, the volume of Better Cotton flowing through the supply chain is recorded on an online platform. This is known as a mass balance chain of custody model and avoids the costs and complexities involved in physical segregation. The end product, a T-shirt, for example, may contain a mix of Better Cotton and conventional cotton, in the same way as the electricity powering our homes may be derived from a grid fed by both fossil fuels and renewable sources.
Ahmad explains: ”Mass balance allows everyone in the chain to function as effectively as possible, maintaining speed to market and driving signals for demand.”
There was initially considerable resistance to the idea, with retailers and brands pushing for varying levels of physical traceability and various stakeholders refusing to accept the solution proposed.
”I was at IKEA at the time, and I thought mass balance diluted the standard and reduced its credibility,” recalls Chanda. “I told our senior managers this wasn’t what we signed up for. They asked – “So what will change for the farmers?’. I realised that BCI has never been about complicating the supply chain. It’s always been about supporting farmers. Mass balance enables BCI to achieve that.”
Navigating future challenges
While Better Cotton is heading towards a “tipping point’ whereby it can be considered a major player in the global cotton market, there is still much to be done to achieve BCI’s vision. In 2021, BCI is launching its 2030 strategy, as it seeks to reach greater scale by helping production countries and farmers take greater ownership of implementing the Better Cotton Standard System. ”In the long term, BCI would move away from overseeing field work and act as custodians of the standard, delivering advice and optimising measurement techniques,” explains Staafgard.
And as extreme weather and natural disasters continue to disrupt agriculture and cotton production worldwide, identifying affordable ways for smallholders to build resilience to climate change and diversify their crops will be fundamental – even more so as the global population expands and competition for land with food crops intensifies. “In a resource-scarce world, BCI and the broader textile and apparel industry must consider what role cotton could play in a regenerative, circular economy,” Holland believes.
”Smallholders are still vulnerable and marginalised, and it’s not getting any easier,” concludes Chanda. ”Even when Better Cotton reaches 30% of the market, there will still be many more farmers who need support.” BCI could further leverage real-time learning techniques and digital resources to reach more farmers and expand its training activities, he suggests.
Indeed, Staafgard is clear that BCI’s focus must remain on agriculture and improving farmers’ practices. ”Mainstreaming is still a big challenge,” she says. ”We must move to the next stage of our evolution as farmers’ needs become more complex, keeping the same spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness at our heart.”