From the Better Cotton Initiative to CottonConnect and organic, there are seven different schemes to cut the environmental and social impacts of the water-intensive textile. Forum for the Future's Cotton 2040 initiative aims to provide clear guidance for brands. Angeli Mehta reports

With one kilogramme of cotton – roughly the equivalent of a T-shirt and pair of jeans – using 2,000 litres of water to produce, brands are increasingly seeing the importance of sourcing cotton that uses less water, as well as fewer pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

But there is heated debate over what constitutes “sustainable” cotton, with seven different growing programmes, including organic and Fairtrade, in operation across the world’s cotton-growing regions, according to Textile Exchange, a US non-profit that works globally to improve industry standards in sourcing textiles such as cotton.

In a report last month, Changing Markets Foundation said the rapid growth of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the world’s largest sustainable cotton scheme, is driving down sustainability standards and undermining the market for the most environmentally friendly option, organic, which uses 92% less water than conventional cotton, and no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers.

Smallholder farmers often live right on the margins of poverty. The focus is on getting their profits up

BCI farmers grew 3.3m tonnes of cotton in 2016-17 – some 14% of global production – up from 2.6m tonnes the previous year. Organic production amounted to a mere 108,000 tonnes in 2015-16, and has been in decline,...

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sustainable cotton  Better Cotton Initiative  Whitbread  C&A Foundation  Organic Cotton Accelerator  Marks and Spencer Plan A 

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