Accelerating and Scaling Sustainability in Cotton Production: Q&A with IDH


Published Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) is an international development organisation accelerating and scaling sustainability across a number of commodities – from cotton and cocoa to palm oil and paper. IDH has been instrumental in the Better Cotton Initiative’s (BCI) growth, providing the initial funding that enabled the scale-up of BCI programmes in different parts of the world, delivering fund management and driving innovation. To mark BCI’s 10th anniversary this year, we caught up with Joost Oorthuizen, CEO at IDH, to discuss the partnership that has spanned a decade.

  • How did the partnership between IDH and BCI begin?

IDH began a partnership with BCI almost a decade ago. Cotton has many social and environmental challenges and we were looking to partner with an organisation developing solutions that could be scaled up. At the time, BCI was a small but established industry standard, and we saw huge potential.

To make sustainable cotton mainstream, we needed a coalition of front-runner companies and NGO’s to invest in its implementation. In 2010, we managed to get that first group of companies together and set – what then seemed ridiculously ambitious – a target to produce one million metric tonnes of Better Cotton within five years. It was an enormous number. Now, as of the 2017-18 cotton season, BCI Farmers have produced more than five million tonnes!

  • How has IDH helped scale the BCI programmes around the globe?

IDH brought €20 million to the table with a caveat that the group of front-runner companies – adidas, H&M, IKEA, Levi Strauss & Co. and Marks and Spencer – would do the same. That really started the ball rolling. BCI’s model enabled companies to move quickly and source more sustainable cotton without disrupting their supply chains, while also investing in training and support for farmers.

The approach that IDH and BCI started is now called the Better Cotton Growth and Innovation Fund. The Fund allows companies to make investments into Better Cotton projects around the world to support BCI in reaching its 2020 targets. In the 2018-19 cotton season, we estimate the Fund will mobilise €14.4 million euros (from multiple stakeholders) for farmer training and support. Today, within the Fund, IDH is driving innovations to support the mainstreaming, impact and scale of the BCI programmes globally, with a focus on continuous improvement.

  • How have attitudes towards sustainable production changed over the past 10 years?

As BCI was taking shape, consumers and companies were gradually becoming more conscious of sustainability issues. Companies wanted to address key challenges and improve traceability, while consumers started to look for brands with a purpose.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have also given us a great compass to help navigate and focus our sustainability efforts. The SDGs are easily adoptable by the public and private sector, and more and more companies are building the goals into their business strategies. They also provide a language and a framework that we can all understand and get behind.

  • Where should BCI focus its efforts in the next 10 years?

Over the past decade, BCI has grown and achieved a scale unprecedented in the cotton sector – it now works with more than 2 million cotton farmers worldwide. In the coming years, BCI’s Retailer and Brand Members need to commit to sourcing larger volumes of Better Cotton to drive increased investment at field-level and to really transform the cotton sector.

In the next decade, BCI and its partners also need to focus on innovative and impactful solutions to improve farmer livelihoods. Many cotton farmers will earn less than a living income. I’d like to see 50% of BCI Farmers earn a living income by 2025 – by 2030 that figure should be 100%. I also think that by 2030, Better Cotton has the potential to account for 80% of global cotton production.

There are many reasons for BCI to be successful going forward. We need to keep the momentum going.

Find out more about IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative.

Image credit: @BCI | Female cotton workers in India, 2014.