Brett Matthews from Apparel Insider, anew media platform which offers an alternative take on the global apparel industry, catches up with BCI’s CEO, Alan McClay.

There are currently many weird and wonderful things going on aimed at creating a more sustainable textiles industry. Fabrics made from orange peel? Check. Spider silk with tensile strength comparable to steel? Check. Using algae to make renewable textiles. Check.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and, if nothing else, the monumental environmental challenges currently facing the global textile sector have spawned the most significant wave of industry innovation for a century.

Pitted next to some of the innovations alluded to above, the work of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) can almost appear a little abstract at times and, dare we say it, dull. Mass balance system? Chain of custody? These are phrases used regularly in BCI circles, though they are not necessarily known among the wider public.

Not that this matters, of course, as having followed the work of the BCI for several years now, the thing that has become most apparent is that this is an organisation which is about impact above all else. Pragmatism is the word which springs to mind – sensible, realistic solutions which are driving major change in the global cotton industry.

The statistics around Better Cotton are quite remarkable, and surely offer a glimpse of what can be achieved in the name of sustainability if enough people are pulling in the right direction. Now comfortably established as the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, in the 2015/16 cotton season, BCI and its partners provided training on more sustainable agricultural practices to 1.6 million farmers from 23 countries and mobilised €8.9 million in field-level investment to enable BCI Farmers to produce 2.5 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton lint.

”We aim to have five million licensed BCI Farmers producing 8.2 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton by 2020,” Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton Initiative said, in a wide-ranging interview with Apparel Insider. ”That will be around 30 percent of global cotton production, up from the current 12 percent.”

Scale is the watchword here. BCI has never made any secret of the fact that it wants to scale up its work, and rapidly. ”The 2020 objectives are ambitious because our ultimate aim is to achieve scale, reaching as many farmers as possible, and to develop Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity,” McClay says. ”Ultimately the BCI vision is to help bring about market transformation to sustainable production practices in the cotton sector.”

McClay points out that BCI will this year start thinking about its objectives for 2030, and we can expect some announcements on that front later in 2018.

Given its growth trajectory of the past few years, it would be no surprise to Apparel Insider if the Better Cotton Initiative had managed to capture half the global cotton market by 2030. But how? How is it growing so rapidly in the notoriously challenging and complex cotton market, one in which successfully matching cotton supply with demand by apparel brands and retailers can prove fiendishly difficult?

“Mass-Balance’ might not sound a particularly exciting term but it is this concept, a supply chain methodology, which underpins the work of BCI. Essentially, Mass-Balance applied to Better Cotton is about ensuring increasing amounts of Better Cotton are ordered and produced, regardless of where the cotton ends up. Thus, if a retailer places an order for finished garments, such as T-shirts, and requests one metric tonne of Better Cotton be associated with this order, a cotton farmer somewhere must produce one metric tonne of cotton to the Better Cotton Standard.

This cotton is then registered on BCI’s supply chain system, and credits — known as “Better Cotton Claim Units’ — for the order are passed through the supply chain for that same weight in cotton, from one factory to the next. What comes out is the equivalent amount of cotton that the farmer produced as Better Cotton, but this has been mixed in with conventional cotton in its journey from field to product.

Using this system means supply chain actors avoid the costly physical segregation of cotton along the complex cotton supply chain. It also enables BCI to reach more farmers, which is the ultimate goal.

But is it not the case that brands and retailers want to know that their products have been specifically produced using Better Cotton – so that they can market them accordingly? McClay tells us: ”Physically tracing Better Cotton through the supply chain is time-consuming and expensive, but more importantly, it is not necessary for us to meet our primary objectives. Ultimately, BCI is focused on making cotton production better for the environment it grows in, better for the people who grow it and better for the sector’s future. Knowing where the Better Cotton ends up does not benefit BCI Farmers.”

The Mass-Balance concept can be difficult to grasp initially, but it is hard to deny that it works; the ends really do justify the means. McClay tells me BCI now has 1,163 members, among them brands and retailers, manufacturers and producers. Membership has grown rapidly as it has become clear that BCI can – and is – delivering on its Better Cotton production commitments.

These commitments ultimately depend, of course, on farmers. Barriers to entry in terms of becoming a BCI farmer are relatively low, which explains why the goal of five million farmers producing Better Cotton by 2020 is eminently achievable.

Says McClay: ”There are no additional costs for smallholder farmers to obtain a license to grow and sell Better Cotton. They receive access to training on more sustainable agricultural practices, reducing barriers and enabling them to produce cotton in a way that cares for the environment, minimises the negative effects of fertilisers and pesticides, and cares for water, soil health and natural habitats. We also support farmers by helping them to understand and respect the fundamental International Labour Organisation (ILO) Decent Work conventions.”

McClay says BCI’s first five years saw the focus on increasing the supply, or farm-level production, of Better Cotton globally. ”Now we need to continue to focus on increasing demand for Better Cotton,” he says.

But how will it do that? Demand is driven by brands and retailers which, in turn, is driven by consumers. A straightforward “this product is made of Better Cotton’ label is not an option, for the reasons outlined above. Instead, BCI launched the Better Cotton Claims Framework — a guide for members to make credible and positive claims about their commitment to BCI — in 2015, and following this, approved the first “On-Product Marks’ appeared in stores in 2016.

Says McClay: ”Only committed BCI Members can use the BCI On-Product Mark. A Member must be sourcing at least 5 percent of their cotton as Better Cotton in order to start using the mark, with a plan to be sourcing at least 50 per cent of their cotton as Better Cotton within five years. BCI monitors this progress and works closely with its members to make sure claims made in association with the BCI logo reflect their engagement with the programme, and are transparent and credible.”

When we ask about BCI’s general PR, and whether it has considered a promotional campaign among end consumers, McClay stresses that the BCI’s core work, where it can make an impact, takes place much further along the supply chain.

”We do not have any campaigns planned to develop recognition of BCI amongst consumers,” he tells us. ”We are an agricultural sustainability standard, and our primary focus is investing our funds in farm-level training and capacity building, and not marketing campaigns. However, many retailer and brand members choose to communicate about the Better Cotton Initiative in campaigns — both in store and digital – which are aimed at consumers, and ultimately, will increase recognition of who we are and what we do.”

As the Better Cotton Initiative has consistently scaled its work year on year, organic cotton, which has been around for a considerable amount longer, has followed a more uneven trajectory. It’s tempting, as an outsider, to wonder whether the latter standard might heed some lessons from the former, though McClay is not convinced.

”Everything that contributes to making agricultural production processes more responsible, more sustainable and more respectful of the environment and the farmers that produce it has the full support of the Better Cotton Initiative,” he says.

It is also worth noting at this juncture that BCI is taking market share from the conventional market as opposed to other sustainable cotton standards.

McClay reinforces the point: ”In 2016, less than 20 percent of global cotton production was independently verified as grown using more sustainable practices. BCI, organic, Fairtrade, myBMP (Australia), ABR (Brazil), Aid by Trade Foundation, and others work towards ensuring that all cotton is produced in a more sustainable manner.”

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