The Better Cotton Initiative A sustainable mainstream commodity

C&A joined the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2015, and in 2016 through hard work and perseverance we were proud to receive the BCI Best Starter Award, and to become the 6th largest buyer of Better Cotton worldwide. 

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The Better Cotton Initiative is transforming the cotton sector, aiming to make a third of the world’s cotton more sustainable by 2020 [SOURCE: BCI]. It’s produced in 21 countries across five continents and reaches 1.6 million farmers. The initiative trains farmers to produce cotton in ways that respect the environment, boost their incomes and strengthen the industry. To earn a Better Cotton license, farmers must demonstrate that they adhere to six principles: 

  • Minimising their use of harmful pesticides.
  • Using water efficiently.
  • Caring for the health of the soil.
  • Conserving natural habitats and biodiversity.
  • Preserving and caring for the health of the fibre. 
  • Promoting decent work.


These principles help reduce the impact of growing cotton significantly. 

Read BCI's 2014 Harvest Report on Impacts

The standard can be applied to farms of all sizes and works alongside other standards for sustainable cotton by complementing, rather than competing with them. 

While it does not replace our commitment to organic cotton, buying Better Cotton is not only vital to our cornerstone goal of sourcing 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020, it is also a prudent approach to mitigate impacts where organic cotton is not feasible or available. It can be produced in greater quantities than organic cotton, as it advocates a more ‘inclusive’ approach alongside other farming methods. It works via a mass balance system, meaning that each unit of Better Cotton that we buy supports the production of a unit of Better Cotton in the world. It also means that the costly segregation process is not necessary, making Better Cotton easier to adopt in the chain and as a result more scalable.

In 2016, 20% of the cotton we bought was Better Cotton, supporting better social and environmental conditions on the ground – contributing more rapidly and extensively to transforming the industry for the better. 

BCI replaced the REEL initiative within our business. REEL paved the way for rapid implementation and reflects our commitment to industry-wide transformation.   

Read more about how mass balance works

Our 2016 performance

Fast transition to the Better Cotton Initiative

We’re proud to have been awarded a ‘Best Starter’ award and been named the sixth largest user of Better Cotton in 2016, our first year of procurement. Better Cotton now accounts for more than 20% of the cotton we source. Our rapid adoption of Better Cotton shows clear progress towards 100% more sustainable cotton.

China, India, Pakistan, Brazil and the US were the origins of 90% of the Better Cotton sourced by our spinners, as declared in the BCI Tracer.

REEL and Better Cotton as a % of total cotton sourced

Action in China, Europe and Brazil

Our regions were key to the swift implementation of the Better Cotton Initiative. Better Cotton uptake required engaging key partners and training suppliers on the initiative and its traceability tool, which allows us to track the amount of Better Cotton we source. Strong supplier relationships meant that we benefitted from the knowledge and support of some of our long-term suppliers to help us with the transition. 

Creating a market in Brazil

Although Better Cotton is grown in Brazil, few Brazilian suppliers and retailers buy it so most of it is currently exported. By working with our biggest spinners, we accelerated uptake to 25.6% in just over a year, allowing Better Cotton grown on our doorstep to be used locally. We see an opportunity to use our size and scale in Brazil to inspire other brands to begin to source Better Cotton in the Brazilian market.

Communicating mass balance

The Better Cotton Initiative works using a mass balance system. Mass balance is a difficult system to explain to both customers and suppliers. Essentially, it works like a bank account, as explained by the Better Cotton Initiative: 

“Imagine you sell your used car for €2,000 in cash. You take the cash to the bank. The bank verifies the amount of your deposit and they use their systems to ensure your account is credited. When you return to the bank to withdraw cash they do not give you back the same bills that you deposited, but their systems ensure that the ‘mass received in equals the mass they can pay out’, and your personal account remains in balance.”

In the context of Better Cotton, mass balance is a way of encouraging supply chain users of Better Cotton to buy and use more of it in a very cost-efficient manner, as it does not require costly physical segregation of the Better Cotton fibre along the supply chain. Records of how much Better Cotton is purchased are strictly managed and the cotton can then be mixed with or substituted for conventional cotton to satisfy contracts. However, the supplier can only claim to sell the amount of Better Cotton that has been purchased from the previous step in the chain. In other words, the ‘mass’ sold cannot exceed the ‘mass’ purchased. In short, for every unit of Better Cotton we buy it is guaranteed that one physical unit of Better Cotton is produced and procured – supporting the transition from conventional cotton to Better Cotton in the fields.

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Where next?

Driving momentum in Mexico

It has taken Mexico longer than our other regions to implement Better Cotton. Over 90% of the cotton they buy is currently from the USA, where relatively little Better Cotton is produced. Our domestic supply for cotton in Mexico is still in its infancy. In 2017, we will concentrate on developing our domestic supply chain to accelerate the sourcing of Better Cotton. 

Helping drive industry-wide change

By joining the Better Cotton Initiative – along with many mainstream industry partners – we are increasing demand for cotton made in better ways. In partnership with the other 65 retail and brand members who are part of the BCI, we’re aiming to double our 2016 performance and procure another million metric tonnes of Better Cotton while encouraging other brands in key sourcing regions like Brazil to consider Better Cotton.

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