Published Monday, September 2nd, 2019
*This article was originally published in the July 2019 print issue of Apparel Insider magazine.
In the last issue of Apparel Insider, the cover story focused on the need for better data to compare cotton production methods. Here, Kendra Pasztor, Senior Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at BCI outlines what BCI is doing on these issues.
Measuring the numbers of farmers participating in projects and meeting the Better Cotton Standard, or the volumes of cotton licensed, is important but it is not enough for us to know to what extent we as a multi-stakeholder-driven sustainability standard are contributing to cotton production becoming more sustainable. We need more. That is why BCI built the reporting of field-level results into its standard system from the beginning.
BCI works with a network of on-the-ground Implementing Partners who interact with millions of cotton farmers and their communities. After each cotton harvest, our partners collect data from a representative sample of BCI Farmers. The millions of field data points reported capture a range of results: environmental – water consumed for irrigation (blue water), types and amounts of fertilisers and pesticides applied (both synthetic and organic); economic – yield, profitability of the cotton crop (standardised categories of costs and income are tracked to support business learning); social – smallholder farmer knowledge about the difference between help acceptable for children to do on a family farm and hazardous child labour, numbers of female farmers and workers trained, and community-level partnerships to support children’s rights.
In some countries, where comparable data is available, our partners also request data from farmers not participating in BCI projects. BCI cleans, compiles, and analyses the data and reports average, country-level results of BCI Farmers versus those of the comparison farmers. It is a like-for-like, annual comparison. This approach offers insight into the differences between BCI-licensed farmer results versus non-BCI farmers amidst an extraordinary diversity of cotton farming contexts and the effects of external seasonal factors.
BCI has not and does not plan to conduct a general, global Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Better Cotton production. LCAs of that kind are extremely costly and do not lend themselves to reliable comparison between identity cottons and conventional cotton, as this publication has recently pointed out. Nor would a global LCA of BCI provide much learning for cotton farmers to deepen impact. BCI does, however, value the science-based approach of LCA and will increasingly use the raw data collected each season to monitor trends in environmental indicators commonly measured by the LCA approach: climate change being one of the most urgently needed along with more sophisticated measures of water use and quality, among others.
This indicates a step-change for BCI’s impact measurement and will strengthen the cotton sector’s monitoring of progress made against the Sustainable Development Goals. But, for data to be correctly interpreted, it must be accompanied by context and background. Data alone does not automatically reveal insight into the extent of impact. By ‘impact; BCI means the positive or negative long-term effects resulting from implementation of the Better Cotton Standard. Data alone may not reveal the reasons for success or failure.
To complement the ongoing use of annual monitoring data, BCI engages in research and evaluation. In June, a robust, independent impact evaluation was published on the ISEAL Alliance’s new impacts website, Evidensia. It evaluated a BCI project in India over three seasons. The study methodology used the scientific Randomised Control Trial (RCT) method, which enabled attribution of impact to the BCI project (something approaches like LCA are not able to do).
BCI is encouraged that the study demonstrates that knowledge and adoption levels of Better Cotton practices significantly increased for treatment farmers as a result of the project inputs and capacity building activities. We are also encouraged that the intensity of project exposure is a predictor of higher adoption of recommended practices among project farmers, indicating general effectiveness of project activities and encouraging us to deepen and strengthen our interventions.
One notable finding was that despite increased pest pressure, the proportion of BCI Farmers using risky pesticide mixtures dropped from 51 per cent to just 8 per cent in three years. Economic and especially social changes achieved during the three-year period were more mixed, however, highlighting how long-term engagement is often necessary for material changes to occur.
When it comes to impact measurement, BCI cannot and should not go it alone. Beyond its commitment to continuously improving its own monitoring and evaluation system, BCI is also engaging with the wider sustainability community to develop a cross-commodity framework to define, measure, and report on sustainable agricultural performance. The Delta Framework Project, supported by the ISEAL Innovation Fund, brings together BCI, the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), the Global Coffee Platform (GCP), and the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) to align key stakeholders on a common sustainability language across the agriculture sector. The Delta Framework Project, which aims to measure change over time via trends analyses, will develop tools to link impacts measures to sourcing practices and national monitoring.
There is no shortage of challenges in measuring sustainability in the cotton sector. We believe we are making progress but acknowledge there is much more to be done. We invite all interested parties to join us on the journey.