Certified organic cotton A cornerstone business objective

Organic cotton has been at the heart of our sustainable materials strategy for more than 10 years. It is significantly better for the environment and the people who work with it. Now, as we move towards our 2020 goals, we remain committed to buying and selling organic cotton and taking a stronger role in supporting the organic cotton sector. 

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Organic cotton protects soil quality, biodiversity and water supply, while preventing water pollution. And it’s safer for farmers and their communities’ health. In 2016, for the fourth time, C&A was named the world’s largest user of organic cotton in the Textile Exchange's Organic Cotton Market Report. During the year, 33% of the cotton products we sold globally were made of organic cotton. From the grower to the garment maker, our organic cotton supply chain is certified to the Organic Content Standard (OCS) or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and never blended with conventional cotton. So, whenever you find a product labelled with our BIO Cotton seal in one of our stores, OCS and GOTS guarantee that the supply chain of the cotton is thoroughly checked and monitored right from source to the final product.

Our 2016 performance

Increasing our sales of certified organic cotton

In 2016, more than 33% of the clothing we sold was made with certified organic cotton. By offering more sustainable garments and communicating the benefits to our customers, we can continue to help drive demand for organic cotton.  It is important to note, that we began to consolidate global organic cotton volumes for all retail markets in 2015. Prior to 2015, only Europe's certified organic volumes were reported.

Historic organic cotton sales (millions of pieces)

Organic cotton as a % share of total cotton sourced

Reducing our impact

In 2016, the Textile Exchange estimated that through the purchase of organic cotton, C&A saved 133.8 billion litres of water, prevented 123 tonnes of pesticides from being used, and improved the soil in more than 136,000 hectares of land. 

Continuing our work in strengthening the sector

We have continued our partnerships with industry reformers such as C&A Foundation and the Organic Cotton Accelerator throughout 2016, to help bolster and secure the organic cotton sector. 


Creating supply and demand: our ‘For the Planet’ organic cotton range in China

While 90% of the organic cotton we use originates in India, we expanded our work on organic cotton to China. Working with C&A Foundation and conservation partner Rare, we created both supply and demand for organic cotton in a market that still needs to be developed.

Read more about the China story

Collaborating to address market challenges

Less than 1% of cotton produced globally is organic, and the sector faces challenges such as a lack of availability and access to quality non-GMO seeds, few incentives for farmers, limited access to the market and lack of supply chain traceability and transparency. Despite a growing demand for organic cotton, farmers are moving out of production due to issues such as access to quality seeds and securing income and access to market during the transition phase from conventional to organic farming practices. Unless these issues are addressed, the whole sector is at risk. We are continuing our work to strengthen the organic cotton sector, working with trusted partners to create a common vision for the sector. 

Since 2014, we’ve supported the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), which aims to create an organic cotton market that benefits everyone, from the farmer to the consumer. C&A is a founding partner and C&A Foundation has provided core financial support for the first four years. With our fellow OCA members – brands, retailers, non-profit organisations, and social enterprises – we’re working to find the best ways to strengthen the organic cotton sector and support a healthy supply and demand. Plans include:

  • Making better seeds available.
  • Improving the business case.
  • Promoting best practices throughout the organic cotton supply chain.
  • Improving integrity and market transparency.



Our partnership with C&A Foundation helping organic cotton farmers

In addition to funding the OCA, C&A Foundation is supporting farmers in the organic sector through partners like CottonConnect, Rare, ASA, WWF and the Aga Khan Foundation. In 2016, C&A Foundation provided €6.8 million to social and environmental programmes in India, China, and Pakistan. Every initiative is designed to improve farmers’ incomes and livelihoods, and contribute to the environment and local communities. In 2016/2017, C&A Foundation has helped 28,279 farmers adopt organic cotton cultivation practices.

One of our key leadership moves on our more sustainable cotton journey was to form CottonConnect.  CottonConnect was created by C&A, the Shell Foundation and Textile Exchange in 2009 to help smallholder farmers move from conventional, high-impact farming to more sustainable methods. It’s designed to link farmers with the international cotton market and help encourage retailers source more sustainable cotton from smallholders. Because of our shared vision to bring more sustainable cotton to market, CottonConnect is working across the industry, helping 16,240 cotton farmers convert to organic cultivation practices.

Read about CottonConnect here

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Where next?

Bolstering the industry

Despite the rising demand for organic cotton, farmers are moving out of organic cotton production, and brands are finding it increasingly difficult to find the right quality and quantity of organic cotton [SOURCE: OCA]. Industry initiatives must align on global standards to provide the vision and drive needed for the industry to thrive. We are working hard with the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) to look at our sourcing practices, the availability of non-GMO seed, and the assurance that farmers will benefit from our purchases. We also support OCA’s Call for Collective Action to accelerate the development and realisation of a unified sector vision and agenda. It is only through collective action that we will be able to capitalise on the existing enthusiasm for organic cotton – and ensure that together we can take this promising sector from strength to strength. 


Reaching out to customers: Certified organic cotton range in Europe

Spring 2017 saw the launch of our certified organic cotton campaign across all our European stores. The campaign ran in-store, online and via social media. It was designed to connect with customers as the world’s largest retailer of organic cotton.

Read more about certified organic cotton and other campaigns for customers


Doing everything we can to ensure the certified organic cotton we buy is really organic

We do everything we can to secure our claim – going beyond certification and what’s required legally, with strict due diligence and third-party assessment to ensure credibility of our organic cotton. The additional checks we have in place in our supply chain include supply chain mapping, spinner nomination, farmer and supply chain training and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) testing. We are currently the only brand testing cotton for GMO contamination at the farm (with the help of CottonConnect), at spinner level and in the end product. In 2017, we will continue this work because it helps us and our supply chain partners to improve.

Case Study

Creating supply and demand for organic cotton in China

Supporting the growth of organic cotton all around the world is a key commitment of C&A and C&A Foundation. Sherrie Liu, Marketing Manager and Raymond Lai, Senior Sourcing Product Manager of C&A China talk about working together to tackle the production of organic cotton in a country with little to no demand for it.

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Currently, the amount of organic cotton produced in China stands at 0.2%. Although the Chinese cotton market is huge, domestic production struggles to compete with cheaper imports from overseas. Plus, due to its scarcity, Chinese consumers are often unaware of the benefits of organic cotton clothing, meaning demand is low.

So how do you change the market in a country with so little demand and awareness?

Sherrie and Raymond of C&A China are tackling the issue, working in tandem to both support farmers making the transition to organic and create demand for the finished products among Chinese consumers.


Supporting the transition to organic

Raymond is taking on the issue at source – supporting farmers to adopt organic production through education; providing modern farming equipment to participants in the programme; and by guaranteeing a sustained income. C&A pay a premium to farmers on the sustainable cotton programme, but it is a process which takes several years to complete.

Converting farmers from growing conventional to organic cotton can be a lengthy process. To become fully certified in line with OCS or GOTS standards means everything from soil quality to farming methods must meet exacting standards. For example, it can take up to three years for soil to become fully free from harmful chemicals. 

Raymond explains: “While this is happening, we’re teaching farmers how to farm differently and stop using pesticides. They do care about the environment, but cotton farmers in China need to be single-minded – they need to have an income year on year and cannot afford three poor years – so they need support and they need assurance.”


Creating consumer demand

How organic cotton is grown is only part of the puzzle. Farmers need to be sure there is a market for this more valuable product. To do that, C&A must tap into Chinese consumers’ needs. As Raymond says: “Organic cotton sells at a higher price and the farmers are worried there will be no buyers. Sustainability is a hot topic on social media, so we try to create demand for organic cotton first.”

Sherrie uses marketing to drive demand for more sustainable cotton. Her research shows consumers are aware of the organic movement and are keen to have more sustainable cotton, particularly for their children: “Organic cotton is seen as good for children to wear, as it is safe and healthy, and as a way of helping to improve the environment for future generations.”

The hard work on 2016’s ‘For the Planet’ campaign seems to have paid off. Sherrie reports that of those surveyed:

  • 79% visitors say they will take action and learn more about the planet.
  • 89% of customers say the campaign gives them a more positive view of C&A.
  • 2% would purchase organic cotton in the future.


Building a market, step by step

Both Raymond and Sherrie continue to work hard to raise the profile of organic cotton across China with the help of others. Systemic change like this isn’t easy, but it is possible. Despite its unpredictable nature, including low yields and fluctuating demand, the shift to organic cotton is ultimately positive for farmers.

Raymond adds: “The farmers are happy, they see there is an environmental benefit from organic cotton, and that it can make their lives and their communities healthier. They also see the market opportunity and feel that their skills and knowledge give them a long-term advantage.”

It will take many brands and organisations coming together to break down the barriers to more sustainable cotton, including revising the national organic standard to make it more accessible and providing education and support for farmers. It’s a transition that will take time, but ultimately one that will benefit the future of the industry and all the people within it.

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