Big brands backing 'greener' cotton

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2012, 12:00am


Popular international fashion brands have formed a consortium to grow environmentally-friendly cotton on a global scale for use in their products.

The initiative is backed and funded by 19 brands and retailers, including Adidas, H&M, IKEA, Levi's, Marks & Spencer and Nike, and also with grants from the Dutch, Swedish and Swiss governments.

The group, called the Better Cotton Initiative, is running a pilot on the mainland this year, with potential areas in Xinjiang and along the Yellow River and Yangtze River identified, after pilots in five other countries, including Brazil, India and Pakistan, over the past two years.

Michael Kobori, who chairs the initiative's governing council, told the South China Morning Post that the purpose was to teach cotton farmers to reduce their use of water and pesticides, and not to use child labour.

'Ninety per cent of cotton farmers in the world, including China and India, are individuals running small family farms,' he said. 'The initiative trains them to grow cotton more efficiently.'

It has harvested a total of 100,000 tonnes of the crop and trained 100,000 farmers, working with the Word Wildlife Fund and other non-governmental organisations.

The pilot in Pakistan has saved a third of the water and pesticides used in conventional cotton farming and increased farmers' income by 69 per cent.

Farmers are taught not to drench fields but to use dripper irrigation and diluted sprays. They are shown how to grow flowers around their fields to attract predators that hunt cotton-eating insects and are asked to record data on computers.

Unlike with Fairtrade products, farmers were paid no premium under the initiative, but they benefited from lower production costs and higher yields, Kobori said.

'The trick of better cotton ultimately is to offer sustainability at no additional cost. Consumers want the great style, quality and sustainability... but they don't want to pay more costs for sustainability,' he said.

Kobori, also vice-president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi's, said a blend of the 'better cotton' had been integrated into two million pairs of jeans in its autumn product lines last year. Levi's plans to raise the percentage of the cotton in its products to 20 per cent by 2015, and at the same time it has launched a 'waterless' programme to cut water use in industrial processes.

There is no product labelling for 'better cotton', however. 'While there is still a limited supply available, we are concerned we might create a niche and that would create a price increase,' Kobori said, adding that the consortium was still developing a tracing system for the cotton.

Gloria Chang Wan-ki, a campaigner with Greenpeace, welcomed the initiative but said big brands should make sure all the steps in their supply chains were environmentally satisfactory.

The group last year found some brands, such as H&M, Nike and Adidas, were sourcing products from two Chinese suppliers that discharged toxic chemicals into rivers near their plants.