More sustainable cotton Overcoming challenges toward our goal

Our 2020 goal is to ensure that all of our cotton is more sustainable — either sourced as certified organic cotton (Organic Cotton Standard, OCS, or Global Organic Textile Standard, GOTS), Better Cotton, recycled cotton, or transitional cotton (transitional cotton is produced by farmers during the time of conversion to organic certification, usually 3 years). As we near our goal, we realise that achieving the last several percent to 100% more sustainable cotton may be challenging.

Over the last year as we reached 94% more sustainable cotton, we have encountered challenges that could affect our ability to reach our final goal of 100% more sustainable cotton. The challenges we are working to overcome in 2020 include:

  1. Reconciliation of Better Cotton Claim Units (BCCUs): There are technical constraints associated with the reconciliation of BCCUs. In addition, it is also difficult to reconcile BCCUs of small orders.
  2. Changes in fibre mix due to changes in fashion trends: New trends could cause a shift in our supply chain, requiring additional on-boarding of suppliers.
  3. The organic cotton supply is limited: Less than 1% of cotton is grown as organic and our share increase could be limited by supply.
  4. Identifying a safe source of recycled cotton: Recycled cotton could contain chemicals that do not comply with our standards.
  5. Creating a stronger connection with transitional farmers: We currently have a limited engagement with farmers who are converting to certified organic.


Certified Organic Cotton

Better Cotton Initiative Cotton

Why focus on cotton?

Strong policies support a more sustainable world.

Cotton is used by nearly everyone, every day, and supports 250 million people’s livelihoods [SOURCE: BCI]. Cotton also makes up 57% of the materials we use in our clothing, so it’s where we can have the biggest impact with the right interventions.

Conventional cotton farming and production processes have a much bigger impact than more sustainable cotton. This is why we follow strict policies to ensure the integrity of our more sustainable cotton fibre from farm to store, and commit to sourcing only more sustainable cotton by 2020:

  • Water use and policy: A regular cotton T-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water [SOURCE: WWF] to make, most of which is needed to grow the cotton. Cotton grown organically needs 91% less freshwater than when grown conventionally, because most of it is rain-fed [SOURCE: Textile Exchange]. Our policy for organic and BCI cotton is to enforce the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria on water stewardship. Adherence to these principles is managed through the Better Cotton Assurance Programme. For organic cotton, our policy is for farmers to follow water stewardship requirements as defined in the USDA National Organic Programme §205.200 and the European Commission Council Regulation 834/2007, Title II, Article 3. These production standards are certified under the Textile Exchange Organic Content Standard (OCS) or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), by third party certification bodies.
  • Pesticide use and policy: Conventional cotton uses around 5% of all the herbicides and 16% of all insecticides applied globally in agriculture [SOURCE: International Cotton Advisory Committee]. This poses risks to the environment and to farmers’ health. Organic cotton eliminates the application of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. To ensure pesticides are not used in organic cotton farming, we follow a zero synthetic pesticides policy for certified organic cotton as defined in the USDA National Organic Programme §205.105, the Indian National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) section 3, and where applicable, the EU Regulation for Organic Production and Labelling 834/2007. These practices are certified against the OCS or GOTS standard by third party certification bodies. For Better Cotton, we adhere to the Better Cotton Initiative(BCI)  guiding principle of minimising the harmful impacts of crop protection practices in the Production Principles and Criteria, including the BCI Pesticides List Classification.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: Organic cotton produces 46% fewer GHG emissions than conventional cotton [SOURCE: Textile Exchange]. Our policy for GHGs is to follow the Science Based Target Initiative and our goals, approved in 2019, for absolute GHG reductions to avoid a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Labour issues and our policy: Forced and bonded labour is a key challenge in the cotton industry. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has a strong focus on ensuring decent work, covering freedom of association, non-discrimination, abolishing child labour and forced labour, and safeguarding health and safety. BCI has also set up an expert Task Force on Forced Labour and Decent Work to review selected elements of the Better Cotton Standard System. Based on this review, the Task Force will produce recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the system in identifying, preventing, mitigating, and remediating forced labour risks [SOURCE: BCI]. Our policy for safe and fair labour is our Supplier Code of Conduct, which covers safe and dignified work from farm to store.
  • Biodiversity policy: Biodiversity is an outcome of more sustainable cotton production and the application of the BCI and national production standards at the farm level. To facilitate biodiversity at the farm level, our policy is to require that both BCI and national production standards for organic cotton be followed and certified at the farm level. For Better Cotton, our policy requires that all farmers abide by Principle 4 of the BCI Principles and Criteria, which are audited by BCI on a periodic basis. For certified organic cotton, we require farmers to comply with the National production standards' (NPOP, NOP, and EU) principles of effective management of soil fertility, facilitating wildlife habitats, and maintaining agro-diverse crops at the farm level, which is in the heart of organic cotton cultivation. Our position on biodiversity in organic cotton production is supported by national production standards and certified against the OCS and GOTS standards.
  • Supply issues: Cotton farmers are moving away from cultivating cotton in favour of more profitable crops such as tobacco, soybeans, or pulses, partly due to plunging cotton prices and difficulties accessing quality seeds [SOURCE: OCA]. Growing more sustainable cotton provides them better access to markets as well as training and learning opportunities to adopt more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable production practices.

Read more about certified organic cotton

Read more about Better Cotton

Where our cotton is grown

Cotton is a shrub that is native to tropical and subtropical regions all over the world, including the Americas, Africa, Egypt, and India. Currently, 90% of the certified organic cotton used in our garments comes from India, where small holder farmers grow cotton and other staple crops using organic farming practices. In recent years, we have worked with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in China to cultivate new sources of transitional cotton in the Binzhou region in Northern Shandong Province.

Read more about certified organic cotton

Read more about Better Cotton

Our 2019 actions

Continue working towards our 2020 goal for 100% of our cotton to be more sustainable.

Increase Better Cotton uptake in all our retail markets.

Our 2019 performance

Progress towards our 2020 goal

This year we reached 94% more sustainable cotton, of which 34% was certified organic cotton and 60% was Better Cotton. Our one-year increase from 71% in 2018 is due to the following actions:
•    Better reconciliation processes for Better Cotton:

  • We have improved how we reconcile orders with Better Cotton Claim Units (BCCUs) claimed.
  • This includes a slight shift in our methodology to better reflect our intentions and our efforts to source more Better Cotton. In previous years, we reported the volume of Better Cotton according to the BCCUs received, not the volume of products we ordered. As a result, our tracking of Better Cotton did not represent our attempts to source more Better Cotton each year.
  • For example, in 2019, we placed orders for Better Cotton products that represented 60% of the total cotton pieces ordered. According to the BCCUs credited, the percentage of Better Cotton products was 51%. The 9% difference is a direct result of the technical constraints associated with the reconciliation of BCCUs and not a representation of our intentions to source more Better Cotton.

•    Training of our suppliers in the BCI process: We have invested time in educating our suppliers in how BCI and the Better Cotton Traceability System work.
•    Better connection with organic farm groups in Pakistan: We have developed relationships with farmers and farm groups to secure organic cotton.
•    Exploration of new organic sources: We have identified additional countries where organic cotton production is increasing

More sustainable cotton as a % of total cotton sourced

0% 100% 50% 2017 2018 2019 Better cotton Organic cotton % share of total cotton* 40% 28% 34% 38% Year 60% 33%

*From 2012 to 2016, this included REEL cotton

Leading in more sustainable cotton

C&A was listed in the Textile Exchange Leaders Circle for more sustainable cotton and ranked #4 in the WWF/PAN Sustainable Cotton Ranking  [SOURCES: Textile Exchange; WWF, PAN, and Solidaridad]

Signing the Prince of Wales Cotton Communiqué

In 2017, we joined the Prince of Wales Cotton Communiqué, the first cross-standard initiative for more sustainable cotton. The communiqué, set up by the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit in partnership with Marks & Spencer and the Soil Association, asks brands and retailers to procure more sustainable cotton and to pledge to source 100% sustainable cotton by 2025.

Our own goal is to be sourcing 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020 and, as the world’s top buyer of certified organic cotton and third top buyer of more sustainable cotton, we have the opportunity to share our learnings with our industry and to encourage collaboration between sustainable cotton standards. To this end, we have contributed to the CottonUp guide — supported by Laudes Foundation — by publishing a case study on our journey towards more sustainable cotton. The interactive CottonUp guide addresses three major topics related to sustainable cotton: why it’s important, what you need to know and do, and how to get started.

Tackling climate change 

Organic cotton reduces the global warming potential of cotton production by 46% [SOURCE: Textile Exchange] and is therefore a key component of our climate change strategy and the development of our science-based targets. 

Read more about our action on carbon and climate change


Supporting cotton workers in our supply chain

Buying organic cotton has a direct positive impact on the health and safety of people in farming communities who are no longer exposed to hazardous chemicals. We also have a history of taking concrete steps to support cotton workers when required. More than 10 years ago in 2007, we signed the Cotton Pledge against forced labour, committing to end the practice of forced labour in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan.

Likewise, C&A does not buy any apparel from manufacturers based in China's Xinjiang province and we have not contracted any fabric or yarn mill located in this region either. We are working together with a number of major brands to better understand the current situation in the Xinjiang Region and to define the actions that need to be taken to ensure an effective due-diligence process  in particular with regards to Chinese cotton production.

We do not tolerate any kind of forced, bonded or prison labour, or any kind of unauthorised subcontracting in our supply chain. This is clearly laid out and communicated through our Supplier Code of Conduct and checked using regular audits by our Sustainable Supply Chain team. All of our suppliers are required to sign and comply with our Code of Conduct as part of our contractual relationship and purchasing agreements.

Read more about how we support cotton workers in our supply chain

Making more sustainable cotton the norm

Since our journey to more sustainable cotton started more than 10 years ago, it has been a cross-functional effort, embedded in our day-to-day activities. Driven by targets, owned by the business, and reported on at the highest level, more sustainable cotton is a central commitment for C&A. Our efforts reach beyond our operations: we seek to improve cotton agriculture, the lives of farmers, and the environment. We are doing this by increasing global demand for organic cotton and Better Cotton, as well as building capacity from the ground up – from the grower to the garment maker – across our supplier network.

We believe in creating more sustainable cotton products for our customers without passing on any additional cost or making the choice difficult for them.

Our more sustainable cotton timeline

Our more sustainable cotton timeline