The future of commodities: pioneering change with the Better Cotton Initiative

Better Cotton Commodities

The production of everyday commodities such as cotton, palm oil and timber can have a huge impact on the environment, affecting biodiversity, water and the climate.

Over 23 million metric tonnes of cotton is grown each year in around 85 countries. This commodity presents many challenges – cotton production’s most prominent environmental impacts stem from the use of pesticides, the consumption of water and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use. There are also social sustainability challenges like child labour and smallholder poverty.

As part of a thought-provoking new series, The Future of Commodities, we spoke to Lena Staafgard, Chief Operating Officer of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), on how this not-for-profit organisation is working to drive change in the global cotton sector.

1. What is the Better Cotton Initiative and why was it established?

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) – a global not-for-profit organisation – is the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world. Last year, together with our partners, we provided training on more sustainable agricultural practices to 1.6 million cotton farmers from 23 countries. Thanks to these efforts, Better Cotton accounts for around 12% of global cotton production.

BCI was established as part of a roundtable initiative led by WWF, with the goal of finding a more sustainable solution for cotton farmers, for the environment, and for the future of the sector. BCI was initially supported by a collective of major organisations including H&M, adidas, IKEA, Organic Exchange, Oxfam, and WWF.

Our aim is to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. By 2020, we hope to train five million farmers worldwide on more sustainable agricultural practices, and account for 30% of global cotton production.


2. How is BCI scaling impact in cotton growing regions?

Our aim is to achieve change by reaching as many farmers as possible in defined regions, so they benefit from training and development and are able to build their support networks. We lay the foundations for long-term transformational change. To achieve this, we engage the entire sector to support more sustainable cotton production. We are truly a joint effort, uniting organisations all the way from farms to fashion & textile brands to civil society organisations, driving the whole cotton sector towards sustainability.

What makes BCI unique is our demand-driven funding model for farm-level programmes, which supports the Better Cotton Growth and Innovation Fund. Fees (dependent on the volume of cotton sourced as Better Cotton) from our retailer and brand members including IKEA, M&S, Levi Strauss and Co. – are match funded by public and private donors to achieve a multiplier effect. A significant majority of funds raised go directly to farm-level training programmes because farmers are at the heart of everything BCI does. The rest supports verification, data management and innovation.

BCI works with partners across the world who also invest considerable time and funds in training farmers. Importantly, this partnership approach helps decentralise implementation of the Better Cotton Standard System and fosters local ownership in regions where Better Cotton is produced and is a key driver of scale.

3. What are some of the main lessons learnt along the way?

In 2010, Better Cotton was harvested in only four countries: Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan. Now Better Cotton is produced in 21 countries. Since 2010, we have learned many valuable lessons! Most importantly, we quickly learnt that in order to lay the foundations for transformational change within the cotton sector and to achieve scale, we needed to collaborate with many stakeholders, all working towards the same goal.

BCI is a farm-level sustainability standard – where farmers are at the heart of everything we do – and another key learning for us in the early years was that we need to ensure that there is demand from retailers and brands for the Better Cotton that BCI Farmers produce. Subsequently, we need to work with the supply chain, not against it, to ensure that Better Cotton volumes (known as Better Cotton Claim Units) are moving through the supply chain. Our guiding light, the ‘Theory of Change’, includes both farm and market as critical areas for achieving transformation.

And, patience; we must not forget to be patient. The cotton sector is centuries old and does not necessarily change easily or quickly. In agriculture, the choices at hand are seldom a matter of 100% right or wrong – there is always a compromise, and it is important to take the necessary time to ensure you make the best decision. And be prepared to change direction and try again if something doesn’t work.


4. What is the role of certification in transforming the sector and what are the main challenges?

Certification by itself does not automatically drive transformation of the cotton sector; there must be access to capacity building for participating farmers, along with multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.

A commitment to continuous improvement is also necessary to transform the sector; BCI Farmers must commit to participating in a continuous cycle of learning and improvement. Furthermore, the public must trust the promise of any standard and this requires transparent certifying and licensing, with independent third parties carrying out objective assessments at field-level.

With around 250 million depending on cotton for their livelihoods, you don’t want to rush or force changes that may put lives at risk; it is important to move forward at a pace that makes sense for the ultimate ‘beneficiaries’ – the farmers. For a farmer, seeing is believing most of the time, and practices do not change overnight. For the supply chain, uncertainty is a risk and change can be costly if not carefully managed. Someone once said that they aimed for their business to be about half-a-step ahead of their customers, to make sure they were able to follow. I think that makes sense when a lot is at stake, such as improving the lives of 250 million people.

5. How do you track progress to ensure change is being driven across the whole cotton supply chain – from improved farmer livelihoods to increased brand participation?

As a data-driven organisation, we committed to collecting and reporting on farm-level results from the very beginning. Every farmer who participates in the BCI programme records data relating to agricultural inputs (like water and pesticide use), costs and income earned from cotton, as well as progress relating to Decent Work issues – like child labour and gender inequality – too.

We also track the volumes of Better Cotton entering and travelling along the supply train, from farms to fashion and textile brands. We do this through a highly efficient supply chain model, Mass-Balance Chain of Custody. This could be compared to indirect purchases of renewable energy. If you purchase renewable energy credits, there is no direct connection from the power source to your home. Rather, the credits are proof that a certain amount of clean energy has been added to the existing power grid. Similarly, by committing to sourcing Better Cotton through a system of Mass-Balance, BCI Retailer and Brand Members can be assured that they are supporting the flow of more sustainable cotton into the supply chain.

By using a system of Mass-Balance, BCI can reach more farmers, meaning more sustainable practices are being implemented around the world. Ultimately, BCI is focused on making cotton production better for the environment it grows in, better for the sector’s future and better for the people who produce it.

6. What does a ‘climate-smart’ future for cotton look like?

It starts with understanding the options through which more sustainable agricultural practices can mitigate and adapt to climate change. Developing solutions to tackle climate change is increasingly expected from all sectors of society. Agriculture, in particular, has come into focus due to the critical role played by the soil in regulating the Earth’s climate.

In this year’s release of the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria (P&C) we have highlighted and clarified the role of the P&C in supporting farmers to adapt to the effects of climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a cotton farmer can achieve this by improving soil and fertiliser management to absorb rather than emit greenhouse gas emissions. A big challenge is that measures will differ from location to location and in each case, farmers need to understand their environment and their soils in order to adapt and mitigate effectively.

The advantage of cotton – and all other natural fibres – is that it can be completely environmentally sustainable if managed well; it does not inherently depend on synthetic or fossil-based inputs. Cotton can often be the main, if not only, cash income for small-scale farmers, providing them with the ability to pay for schooling, health care and other vital aspects of life.

To find out more about the Better Cotton Initiative’s work towards building a sustainable cotton supply chain, visit their website