Sustainable cotton

The demand for organic cotton is growing. Some brands, including C&A, have made big commitments to go organic and a variety of organisations have established initiatives to help grow the market. But demand still exceeds supply. Certified organic cotton accounts for less than 1% of the world's cotton.

We can change that. But we have to change the systems and practices that allow this situation to occur. And not through incremental change, but wholescale system transformation.

It means farmers need the incentive and support to change the way they grow cotton, brands will have to change their buying habits and markets will have to adjust. To drive a solution, we need to see change happening at both ends of the value chain.

In this section, Laure Heilbron from the Organic Cotton Accelerator, Michiel Brenninkmeijer from C&A China, and Ashis Mondal from the Action for Social Advancement share the solutions they believe will make cotton farming fair and sustainable.

Women farming organic cotton in Madhya Pradesh, India

Village women making bio-pesticides for their organic farms in Madhya Pradesh, India

Village women making bio-pesticides for their organic farms in Madhya Pradesh, India

Farmers in Madhya Pradesh, India take their cotton to market

Starting a movement

Laure Heilbron

Acting Executive Director,
The Organic Cotton Accelerator

When it's grown and sold in the right way, organic cotton is better for everyone. For the environment, for farmers and for the fashion industry. But even with years of hard work and commitment from a variety of organisations, organic cotton still has a small market share.

The Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) was established in 2014 to overcome the barriers that are holding back the production of organic cotton. For OCA, it's about fundamentally transforming the entire system. That starts with building a movement for change across the organic cotton sector.

At the moment, individual brands who want to buy organic cotton often work with their own farmers, spinners, factories and other supply chain partners. But a single brand can't transform a whole sector. Our purpose is to create a shared vision and strategy that brings everyone's actions together. To get us all pulling in the same direction.

Organic cotton has many benefits for farmers: less dependence on chemical fertilisers and chemical pesticides, as well as a healthier working environment. But many farmers are still reluctant to make the switch. To farm organic cotton, they'll need to learn new skills and invest time. And since their yields tend to decrease in the first years, they take a hit on their margins too. So they need to see it as a long-term investment.

We're making the business case for organic cotton stronger for farmers by providing access to better quality, uncontaminated organic seeds. We will also strengthen collaboration between supply chain actors through promoting best practices of risk sharing and long-term commitments. With these actions, farmers can reap the benefits of growing organic cotton in the medium term.

The cotton supply chain is extremely fragmented. With so many different players between the farmer and the brand, it's hard to know just how much organic is in the end product. Because there is no one reliable traceability system in place across the entire supply chain, brands are reluctant to buy organic and run the risk of a damaged reputation.

So that's our next challenge. We want to strengthen the integrity of organic cotton by building a traceability system. More streamlined supply chains, better custody systems and clearer reporting frameworks will give brands the confidence to say that organic really means organic. And that means they'll invest more in organic farmers. It's a win-win.

Through all of these solutions, we will be able to build a safer and more prosperous organic cotton market.

We support 3 multi-stakeholder initiatives to grow demand for organic and deepen collaboration

  • Cotton 2040

    Engaged 150 industry stakeholders to work across 4 workstreams:

    • Building demand for sustainable cotton
    • Recycling and circularity
    • Improving traceability
    • Upskilling farmers and farming communities
  • Organic & Fair Trade Cotton Secretariat (Madhya Pradesh)

    14 organizations represented across government, NGOs, brands and retailers

    3 seed-breeding initiatives are underway

  • Organic Cotton Accelerator

    Founded by a group of 5 brands focusing on 4 priority initiatives:

    • Setting up a traceability system
    • Identify and implement chain of custody innovations
    • Increase transparency through a reporting system
    • Increase the supply of quality seeds

    €518k in public and private sector funding invested to date

Creating an organic cotton market in China

Michiel Brenninkmeijer

Director of Sourcing and
Head of CSR for C&A China

At C&A, we've committed to using 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020. At the moment, reaching that ambition is practically impossible in China. So, together with C&A Foundation, we're creating a solution.

China has tough standards when it comes to certifying cotton as organic. The cotton we could import from other countries would never meet the criteria. So it would have to be grown and produced in China. But, according to the Textile Exchange, of the 6.5 million metric tonnes of cotton China grows, only about 12,200 is organic. That's less than 0.2%.

Converting cotton growers to organic isn't easy. There are plenty of aspects that put farmers off, like a lower short-term yield. To negate that worry and promote organic farming, C&A and C&A Foundation have been working with Rare, a conservation NGO, to strengthen the business case for organic cotton.

Organic cotton needs less water to grow than conventional cotton. The input costs are lower too. Instead of spending money on pesticides and fertilizer, farmers can use bio-pesticides and manure – much cheaper organic alternatives. Rare works with farmers, teaching them how to grow organic, helping them to get certified and ultimately fostering a change of mind set.

This work with farmers in China, and specifically a project run jointly between Rare and WWF, has given us enough cotton for around 20,000 pieces for Summer 2016. It was less than we'd hoped for due to a late start to the project, bad weather that led to quality issues and a delayed harvest. We also struggled to find a ginner. So we'll be taking those lessons on board as we work with farmers to increase the output for next year, which we plan to increase by a factor of ten.

When this project started, it was very much a sourcing-driven initiative. But we need to ensure there's a demand. So we've been working with our design and marketing teams to find the best way to take our organic cotton products to customers. We launched a campaign in June 2016 and start telling the story of organic cotton. It's an opportunity for us to differentiate C&A in China and make organic an accessible and fashionable choice.

We're committed to increasing China's organic cotton market. And that won't just benefit C&A. We believe it will help the entire industry.

Organic cotton farmer and participant in Aga Khan Foundation initiatives in Petlawad, India

The power of working together

Ashis Mondal, Action for Social Advancement, Bhopal

In Madhya Pradesh, resources are scarce and the infrastructure is undeveloped. For the tribal people here, that means unstable agricultural livelihoods. In 1995, we set up Action for Social Advancement to change that. One of the ways we're doing it is through promoting sustainable agriculture, including organic cotton.

In 2015, we co-created a working group to address the challenges of cultivating organic cotton. We joined forces with C&A Foundation and other partners, like CottonConnect, The Aga Khan Foundation and WWF India to represent the Organic & Fair Trade Cotton Secretariat in Madhya Pradesh. The idea is to find solutions together. The current system is so fragmented. There's no central vision or plan, especially around the organic cotton value chain. Everyone from growers, spinners to brands operate in their own silos.

We wanted to transform this. To do so, we had to bring a key player on board: the government. The welfare of farmers is their mandate, and it's part of their job to promote crops and good agricultural practices.

So we collaborated with government through the state-run agricultural university, Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, to find a solution to the shortage of non-GMO seeds. We needed a model of seed breeding outside the conventional production model and a credible partner who understood the situation. The university was perfect.

Once we had the seeds, we had to market them to farmers. Marketing isn't a strong area for the government, so we brought in a state level federation of farmers' companies, representing about 100,000 shareholders – a large section of whom are cotton farmers. The farmers' company has signed an agreement with the agriculture university for guaranteed marketing of the organic seeds.

But for organic cotton to flourish, we need people to guide production, certification and find a market for the end product. Farmers need support and training in organic cultivation. So we all pulled together – the government, university and the working group – to create a plan. We set up a three-month residential training course to teach organic farming to the educated village youths. After they have completed their training, they will be awarded with a certificate and will be able to work as a service provider for the farmers and for others in the value chain.

The first round of training will start soon for thirty village youths. And the State Agriculture Department of Madhya Pradesh has agreed, in principle, to financially sponsor 200 youths for organic cultivation training every year. A pool of trained human resources continuously flowing into the organic value chain system will enable the sector to flourish.

The guaranteed supply of genuine organic cotton seeds, the trained human resources and a more organised value chain will stimulate the organic cotton sector, which will improve cotton farmers' livelihoods. It's going to change things here in Madyha Pradesh. It's going to accelerate organic cotton production. It's going to transform lives.

Solutions for organic cotton production

Creating multi-brand cooperation to boost demand and support supply of organic cotton

Demonstrating socio-economic and environmental case for organic cotton


Insufficient organic cotton production

Lack of transparency and traceability

Increasing use of GMO cotton with heavy use of chemicals

Poor market incentives for organic cotton farming

Identifying incentives and best practice for organic cotton farming

Increasing organic cotton production through technical support to farmers

Our results in 2015

We helped 5,608 additional farmers in 3 countries to start certification of their organic cotton, in a multi-year process resulting in a 16.5% increase in hectares under organic production or in conversion

In 2015, these farmers produced 7,895 metric tons of organic cotton lint. That’s enough to produce about 30 million 100% organic cotton T-shirts

metric tons