Getting a New Sustainability Standard off the Ground: Q&A with BCI’s Founding CEO


Published Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

BCI’s Founding CEO, Lise Melvin, worked with a dedicated team for seven years to transform the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) from an idea into a reality. Having worked in sustainable development for many years, she saw the cotton sector as a new challenge and joined BCI in 2006, three years before it officially launched in 2009. To mark BCI’s 10-year anniversary this year, we caught up with Lise to discuss the highs and lows of getting a new sustainability standard off the ground.

  • What were the early days at BCI like?

I don’t think we realised what we had taken on! Cotton is grown in many countries and hundreds of millions of people rely on cotton for their livelihoods. Cotton farmers can face numerous challenges, from pest pressures to weather conditions and labour rights. The global cotton supply chain is also hugely complex. It was extremely hard work in the beginning. However, it was a multi-stakeholder effort, and we were all determined to make the Better Cotton Initiative work – we also enjoyed what we were doing.

  • Tell us about the development of the Better Cotton Standard System.

In order to have an impact in the cotton sector, we wanted to reach and train as many smallholder cotton farmers as possible on more sustainable practices. And, we wanted to ensure they didn’t have to pay to be a part of BCI. We were a new organisation and full of ambitious ideas, which gave us the opportunity to be flexible and take an innovative approach without too many burdens. However, it also meant we had to challenge the status quo at every step. The biggest hurdle was securing support from the BCI Steering Committee (an early version of the BCI Council) to let us trial licensing and a mass balance chain of custody model (rather than certification and physical traceability). But we got there in the end.

Initially, we set ourselves a goal of three years. We decided that we would work with a selection of cotton farmers to implement the Better Cotton Standard System and then evaluate our approach – if there was no change in that time, we would stop the programme. Thankfully, after three years we saw some positive results from farmers who’d been participating in the training sessions. I’m delighted to see that BCI has gone from strength to strength since then.

  • How did you get others invested in BCI’s mission to make global cotton production better for farmers, the environment and the sector?

From the very beginning we took a very personable approach with all of BCI’s stakeholders. We didn’t see members and partners as just investors or implementers. We wanted to get to know who they were. We needed input from everyone in order to make BCI a success. That meant we had a lot of difficult conversations, but we needed to have them. We also set up annual events so that everyone had a chance to meet face-to-face once a year. Although I am no longer with BCI, I know this continues today, and it creates a great level of trust amongst the BCI community. The trust is one of the things that made it possible to work through the pressures of developing a new standard system.

  • How did BCI engage potential new Better Cotton production countries?

When BCI officially launched in 2009, four countries were producing Better Cotton (the cotton grown by licensed BCI Farmers): Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan. We then received so many enquiries from other countries who wanted to implement the Better Cotton Standard. It was truly amazing, but we couldn’t take it all on. We were still testing the system. We didn’t want to roll it out all over the world, in case it didn’t work. We had to be strategic. We set up a process that the new countries had to go through in order to start partnering with BCI and implementing the Better Cotton Standard System. They needed to have support from the government, cotton farmers who were willing to participate in the programme, and evidence that they had access to multi-stakeholder funding. We had to make sure they were committed. The approach worked, and today BCI works successfully with field-level partners and farmers in 23 countries.

  • How did global brands respond to BCI?

Many brands were responsive to BCI when we initially reached out to them and told them about our vision. We worked with founding BCI Members (including H&M, IKEA, adidas, Levi Strauss, and M&S) to connect with other retailers and brands. Then we had very honest conversations with them – we had to persuade them to work with a mass balance chain of custody model (rather than physical traceability), and luckily they were open to trying new things in order to create change in the sector.

  • 10 years on from the launch of BCI, how do you feel attitudes towards cotton production have evolved?

There are still a lot of people who talk about cotton being a thirsty crop. It’s not a thirsty crop, unless it’s managed poorly. It’s good to see that there is now a movement to update the information shared by the media. As an industry we need to quash some misconceptions about cotton. We can do this by improving consumer awareness around all textiles and their impact on the environment. Other sustainable cotton standards, such as Fairtrade, organic, Better Cotton and recycled, are all working towards the same goal to make cotton production better. Retailers and brands can really make a difference by working with different cotton standards to source a portfolio of more sustainable cotton. The focus should not be on comparing the standards to one another, but on the progress being made collectively. As a population we also need a higher-level conversation around over-consumption and waste and the pressure it puts on the planet.

About Lise Melvin

Today, Lise has her own business – (re)spirited. She remains deeply committed to sustainability and works to support leaders and organisations to transform to move towards their vision. She is a Somatic Coach and teaches Embodied Leadership with the Strozzi Institute. Lise is also following another of her passions by offering women’s leadership retreats in Costa Rica.