TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON

The first of a series of insights from the 2016 Preferred Fiber & Materials (PFM) Benchmark program launches this month with a focus on cotton.

In March 2017, Textile Exchange (TE) released the results of the 2016 PFM[i] Sector Benchmark[ii]. Results showed that 71 participating companies (see Figure 1), from conglomerates to small fashion boutiques, are getting serious about the sustainability of the raw materials at the core of their businesses. This TE Insights Series, released in partnership with Sourcing Journal Online, digests some of the key findings from the report. This month’s focus is on preferred cotton[iii].

THE PREFERRED FIBER & MATERIALS BENCHMARK IN A NUTSHELL

The Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber and Materials (PFM) Benchmark provides a robust structure to help companies systematically measure, manage and integrate a preferred fiber and materials strategy into mainstream business operations, to compare progress with the sector, and to transparently communicate performance and progress to stakeholders.

Companies follow a self-assessment process intended to help identify the strengths and the gaps where future progress can be made. By comparing section scores with those achieved by the whole sector, companies can plan improvement efforts and prioritize action areas.

Going forward key indicators (inputs, outcomes, and impacts) of the Benchmark will be monitored through a Barometer of Progress and aligned with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Ensuring sustainable consumption and production (discussed further on in this article).

TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON 1

MOVING TO A PORTFOLIO APPROACH

For the first time, Textile Exchange is able to see not only companies’ performance in long-standing sustainability initiatives such as Organic Cotton, but also are also uncovering how far companies have come in building their mix of fibers and materials to get the most sustainability impact. That’s the thinking behind the portfolio approach that the PFM Benchmark measures. The Benchmark offers the following PFM modules within four key fiber categories (Figure 2).

TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON 2

COTTON IS STILL KING FOR MANY – AND A GUIDE TO THE FUTURE

The 2016 lineup of participants were heavy cotton users, with an average share of 58 percent cotton in their overall fiber usage (Figure 3). This percentage share is significantly higher than the 24.6 percent reported for cotton by the International Cotton Advisory Committee in 2016[i].

Cotton dominated the fiber usage of small and medium-sized Apparel (Apparel SM) and Home Textile brands, while Outdoor/Sports companies were much heavier users of synthetics, mostly polyester (with an average share of 63 percent). Although synthetics and other fibers[ii] were a smaller share of the Benchmark overall, the use of alternatives in the non-cotton categories, particularly polyester, is lagging. More discussion on polyester in the next Insights report.

TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON 3

Further drilling into the breakdown of conventional to preferred cotton (Figure 4) shows that the Apparel (S/M) and Home Textile sub-sector are also ahead in converting conventional to preferred, followed closely by Outdoor/Sports. The biggest users by volume sit within the Multi-Sector/Apparel (XL) sub-sector, and at 28 percent preferred, as a group these larger companies are making headway on converting to preferred alternatives.

TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON 4

AN EYE ON THE END GOAL

PFM Benchmark results confirm that companies are setting ambitious SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-related), particularly for the uptake of preferred cotton, with many taking a portfolio approach to converting virgin or conventional cotton into preferred.

H&M

By 2020, all our fibers will come from sustainable sources, which includes cotton from BCI, organically grown cotton (GOTS, OCS certified), and recycled cotton (according to GRS, RCS), or moving to other more sustainable fiber choices like Lyocell.

73 percent of the 66 companies who completed one or more preferred cotton module have set targets for uptake. 61 percent have discrete targets for Organic. This result can be compared with the 39 percent of the 41 companies who have set similar targets for the uptake of preferred synthetics, such as recycled polyester.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

It is not surprising that cotton is ahead of other fiber categories when it comes to corporate focus on sustainability. Over the past 15 years, non-profits, researchers, campaigners, the media, and other stakeholders have been raising awareness of the problems with cotton and its impact on people at the base of the supply chain. With the majority of the 100 million cotton farmers being smallholders in developing countries, issues from poverty to pesticides have been, and continue to be, associated with some of the biggest sustainability challenges in the textile industry.

The industry has come a long way in acknowledging concerns and has put forward a number of solutions from Organic to Fair Trade to Cotton made in Africa, and the Better Cotton Initiative. Survey responses revealed that a number of large brands, including Nike, H&M, and Inditex (Zara), view Recycled Cotton as an important preferred cotton going forward.

WHAT THE RESULTS SHOW

The spread of results (Figure 5) show that overall companies are most advanced in their work in Organic (OC) or Organic Fair Trade (OFT). By sub-sector, Multi-Sector/Apparel (XL) brands are the most likely to diversify their preferred cotton portfolio, while Apparel (S/M) companies tended to be more focused on OC or OFT cotton. This “Small Apparel Organic Fair Trade” combination proved a winning one in terms of Benchmarked results.

TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON 5

ARMEDANGELS

From farmer, gin, knitter, weaver to sewing factory, we personally know all the actors of our organic cotton supply chain. We provide yearly forecasts in advance to the farmer cooperative for their planning and financing needs.

Under the Canopy

Third-party certification entities guarantee our high quality materials, fair labor standards, and low impact production. Close tracking of our process from seed to shelf ensures that every step of our production process meets the Standard’s strict criteria.

Results show that more needs to be done to bring customers along on the journey. The Benchmark Section results (Figure 6) reveal that the lowest scores were in Section 4: Consumer Engagement, where many companies struggle to convert their efforts into a business outcome or return on investment. This lagging business case for sustainability continues to stunt large-scale corporate investment and growth in consumer engagement. Thankfully, there are signs of this changing as more companies come to grips with their strategy and start to talk more confidently about their work in this area.

TEXTILE EXCHANGE INSIGHTS SERIES: PREFERRED COTTON 6

But back to those SMART targets. If companies succeed, then tempting the customer may become less of a factor. Companies meeting their targets will result in customer choice directed towards sustainability. This is an interesting example of choice editing – the domination of more sustainable options leading customers, rather than waiting for tastes to change independently. In the meantime some brands say their customer is now better informed, and willingness to pay for sustainability is thought to be increasing. Slightly.

COTTON PORTFOLIOS WILL COME IN MANY SHAPES AND SIZES

Life Cycle Assessment shows that Organic is the higher standard in terms of environmental sustainability, with stricter criteria on the use of fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs. With 56 participants (79%), the Organic Cotton module had the highest number of participants, many of them first movers in the market (such as C&A, Patagonia, Nike, and H&M). However, under pressure to meet targets, the more readily available preferred cottons, such as BCI, will offer quick access to volume, enabling the larger brands to accelerate progress.

The learning here is that there is not one size that fits all and a portfolio approach to cotton offers many advantages.

At Textile Exchange, we promote fairly traded Organic cotton as the “gold standard,” but recognize the important role that other initiatives play in making cotton more sustainable. We encourage brands and retailers to develop a cotton strategy that best fits their company’s business and starting position, and a portfolio approach can be the best way to get started.

REFERENCES

[i] Preferred Fiber/Material: Textile Exchange describes “preferred” as a fiber, material or product that is ecologically and socially progressive: One that has been selected because it has more sustainable properties in comparison to other options.

[ii] PFM Benchmark Program: For more information and to download the report visit http://textileexchange.org/preferred-fiber-materials-benchmark/

[iii] Preferred Cotton: The PFM Benchmark included five modules for cotton in 2016: Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Fair Trade, Organic, and Organic Fair Trade. Each preferred cotton presents a variety of worthwhile sustainability attributes. This is not an exhaustive list of preferred cottons.

[i] Global Cotton Consumption for 2016: International Cotton Advisory Committee https://www.icac.org/Press-Release/2016/PR-12-World-Cotton-Consumption-Drops

[ii] More insights on the non-cotton categories will come in later TE Insights.