Since 2017, Solidaridad Europe and the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) publish their annual cotton ranking - a look at the largest cotton users among international apparel brands and retailers and their sourcing practices. The number has grown from 37 companies in 2017 to 82 in 2023.
The ranking analyses their public objectives and policies, the share of sustainable cotton and transparency in their supply chain. The main finding this year: Only nine fashion companies are doing a bare minimum to address unsustainable cotton while the vast majority (89 percent) are "non-transparent, unsustainable and show little progress towards improving labour conditions".
Only nine companies sourcing almost all cotton from certified sources
“Much of the cotton purchased by major companies does not meet even the requirements of basic certification, meaning that its source cannot be verified to be meeting minimal standards,” is the crushing result. Only 9 of the 82 largest cotton-sourcing companies in the world are found to be sourcing 99 percent or all of their cotton from certified sources such as BCI cotton, organically grown cotton or recycled cotton: Decathlon, H&M, Ikea, Adidas, Columbia, Marks & Spencer, C&A, Lojas Renner and Puma. “All other companies are failing to achieve even this, with 30 companies achieving a score of zero in the ranking.”
Five companies made it in the low to high 90s percentile, namely Tchibo, Bestseller, Tom Tailor, Levi Strauss and Punto FA in descending order. Only three companies make up the 80s bracket, one of them being Grupo Guararapes with brands such as Riachuelo, Wolens and Pool Original, that uses 89 percent of cotton that was sourced “more sustainable”. Others are Fruit of the Loom (87 percent) and Zalando SE (84.4 percent).
Seven companies made it in the low to high 90s percentile, namely Tchibo, Bestseller, Tom Tailor, Levi Strauss, Otto Group, Inditex and Punto FA in descending order. Only three companies make up the 80s bracket, one of them being Grupo Guararapes with brands such as Riachuelo, Wolens and Pool Original, that uses 89 percent of cotton that was sourced “more sustainable”. Others are Fruit of the Loom (87 percent) and Zalando SE (84.4 percent).
Many companies like Target, Amazon.com, Kering and Nike do not report on the uptake of certified cotton, mention the standards they use nor provide numbers or percentages or simply incomplete ones.
“Complex trade realities” no reason to source unsustainably
For the first time, the 2023 Cotton Ranking is accompanied by a research paper, titled ‘Cotton and Corporate Responsibility’, published by the newly launched Sustainable Cotton Hub whose goal is to bring together experts from organisations working in and around the cotton sector, such as Solidaridad and PAN UK.
In the paper, the organisations invalidate the argument that many brands cite, which is complex trade realities as a barrier to progress, and provide clear recommendations like investing in smallholder climate adaptation, updating purchasing practices to ensure better pay for cotton producers, and becoming transparent on cotton sourcing, as a start.
“In reality, given the resources available to big brands, unsustainable cotton is a choice. A bad one. But it doesn’t have to be one we live with. Brands and retailers can make new decisions. They can choose to be more transparent in their operations, and about their suppliers. They can choose to take on the complex question of fair pay, rather than use it as an excuse. And they can choose to engage with all actors along their supply chain, rather than hiding behind intermediaries”, comments Tamar Hoek of Solidaridad Europe.
Smallholder farmers are at the end of the cotton chain
The latest Cotton Ranking and the ‘Cotton and Corporate Responsibility’ paper reveal the negative impacts of current corporate practices on cotton workers and the environment, with low margins pushing farmers to work for less money and to gamble on hazardous agrochemicals in an effort to stay above the poverty line.
Thus, smallholder cotton farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s cotton producers, currently live on the edge of poverty and do not receive a fair income and wages. In addition, they have no access to training and no support for climate adaptation. “With the impending impact of climate change likely to reduce or destroy yields across every cotton growing region, smallholder farmers will not be able to ensure reliable production and will be pushed even further into poverty,” foresees the report.
Chemicals are another problem: “Nearly half of smallholder cotton farmers are poisoned by pesticides every year. Zero pesticide poisoning is possible today if textile and apparel companies choose to take responsibility for their supply chains and deepen investment in supporting a transition to agro-ecological cotton production,” emphasises Rajan Bhopal from PAN UK.
New Sustainable Cotton Hub
More information on these and other issues along the cotton supply chain can be found on the website of the newly established Sustainable Cotton Hub.
“The aim is to expose the sustainability challenges of cotton production, and explore the host of contributing economic, labour and environmental factors. Concretely the platform will always provide recommendations on how major stakeholders can address these critical issues,” explain the organisations in a press release. Future papers will cover topics including climate change, nature and inequality.
This article was updated on 6th July 2023 with corrected information on Inditex and the Otto Group.