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. We are committed to buying and selling organic cotton and taking a stronger role in supporting the organic cotton sector and have developed a leadership position in scaling our procurement of certified organic cotton. Since 2005, we have increased the number of certified organic cotton garments from 1 million to more than 170 million pieces.


Organic cotton also protects soil quality, biodiversity, and water supply, while preventing water pollution. And it’s safer for farmers and their communities’ health. 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. This means that any C&A product in the store labelled with our BIO COTTON seal is guaranteed and certified by OCS and GOTS that the supply chain of the cotton has been thoroughly monitored from source to the final product.

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Our 2018 performance

Our evolution in certified organic cotton

Since we began purchasing organic cotton in 2005, we have rapidly grown our procurement, and by 2018, 38% of the cotton we used was certified organic. We remain committed to organic cotton as one way to make our clothing more sustainable. Concurrently, we continue evaluating what our customers want in sustainable fashion. Going forward, we are focused on getting organic cotton into the right products and clothing collections. Prioritising our use of organic cotton will result in higher concentrations of organic cotton in certain product types and collections where its use is especially important to customers.

One important attribute that has emerged is physical traceability of the fibre. Though all our organic cotton is certified to a third-party standard, we want to understand if it would be possible to physically trace the fibre from farm to store. This is why we are engaged in an innovative blockchain pilot with Bext360 that uses technology to trace organic cotton throughout the value chain using different tracing methodologies to detect chain of custody through the value chain – from farm to store. The pilot aims to determine if this is an approach that could provide C&A even greater confidence around integrity, purity, and quality, and enable new communication approaches with our customers.

By offering organic cotton garments and communicating the benefits to our customers, we can continue to help drive demand. 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.

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Organic cotton as a share of total cotton sourced

0% 100% 50% 2016 2017 2018 % share of total cotton 33% 40% Year 38%

Reducing our impact

In 2018, the Textile Exchange estimated that through the purchase of organic cotton in 2017, C&A saved 170.8 billion litres of water, avoided the use of 157 metric tons of hazardous pesticide, and improved the quality of over 174,000 hectares of soil. Note that the Textile Exchange uses a different methodology for calculating impacts and savings than Aligned Incentives, the organisation that calculates C&A’s footprint — presented elsewhere in this report. Therefore, the results cannot be directly compared.

Estimated savings from organic cotton procurement

Ensuring the certified organic cotton we buy is really organic

We do our utmost to secure the integrity of our organic cotton – going beyond certification and what’s required legally, with due diligence and third-party assessment. These additional checks include organic seed screening, seed linkage with organic farmers, training of farmers and ginners, supply chain mapping and yarn spinner nomination. Going forward, we will be continuing our testing of organic cotton for genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination at the farm level (with the help of CottonConnect) through due diligence and third-party assessment.


Continuing our work to strengthen the sector

Throughout 2018, we continued our partnerships with organisations such as C&A Foundation and the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), to help bolster and secure the organic cotton sector.

Case Study

Supporting the extension of organic cotton farming in China

Supporting the growth of organic cotton worldwide is a key commitment of both C&A and C&A Foundation. In 2017, both organisations worked closely with CottonConnect to launch an organic cotton pilot at Binzhou farm, Shandong Province in China. The project continued in 2018 and into 2019 as well.

newborn collection

It takes three years to transition cotton crops to fully organic. As part of this project, C&A China committed to buy cotton during these transition years, which are challenging and risky years for farmers as they move from conventional to organic crops. This commitment was made before the sowing season, providing farmers with market access, additional incentives, and financial security. In addition, C&A China offered to pay the farmers a premium to secure their income and compensate for any loss of yield during the transition process.


In 2017, C&A China bought the entire crop of all 105 farmers involved in the project: around 80 metric tons. The cotton was used to make 147,000 T-shirts and 60,000 pairs of jeans, the first of which reached stores in April 2018 around Earth Day. In-store communications helped customers identify the new products made with this transition cotton. During 2018, C&A China expanded the project to a total of 300 farmers, purchasing 90 metric tons of in-transition cotton to produce 144,000 T-shirts and 80,400 pairs of jeans. We also worked with farmers to improve their harvesting technology and prevent the accidental introduction of foreign fibres, which can affect quality and lead to wastage during spinning and cutting.   


For the 2019 harvest, which will be used in apparel delivered in 2020, C&A China plans to expand purchases beyond T-shirts and jeans.

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 to transition, 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, and the whole sector is at risk if the industry is unable to address these issues effectively. So, 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 have supported the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), which aims to create an organic cotton market that benefits everyone, from the farmer to the customer. C&A is a founding partner (and serves on the Board of Trustees) and C&A Foundation is providing core financial support. With our fellow OCA affiliates – brands, retailers, non-profit organisations, and social enterprises – we’re working to find the best ways to strengthen the organic cotton sector and support healthy supply and demand. Plans include:

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

Behind the scenes with OCA: Higher income, better health, happier families

‘Our communities tend to heavily use pesticides for agriculture. A neighbouring village with roughly 800 families has 16 families with cancer patients. I feel blessed to have switched to organic farming. My family’s health is much better, we are eating more nutritional food and all of my children are in school or college’.

Baliram, farmer in Modhapura (a small village in the Kheda District of Gujarat, India)


For years, it has been difficult for cotton farmers to justify the costs associated with transitioning from conventional cotton farming to organic methods. The Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) was started – with core funding from C&A Foundation - in 2014 to address exactly these barriers – not by increasing demand for organic cotton, but by working with farmers to making it a more rewarding enterprise.


C&A piloted a programme in collaboration with C&A Foundation to support 300 organic cotton farmers in India for the 2017-18 cotton season by committing to procure their crop at the time of sowing. This meant less risk, better income, more security, and more trust for the farmers at the beginning of the season.


C&A worked with the Vasudha Farms Initiative, an on-the-ground intermediary that works with 35,000 cotton farmers in India on transitioning to organic or the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) methods.


‘We started with the premise that every participating farmer would get a 10% premium for their cotton price by transitioning to organic. But we quickly realised that was not the right incentive for the farmers, given that only 25% of their annual revenue comes from cotton. So we quickly switched approaches – we offered them the seeds upfront at no cost on the condition that they would invest in multi-cropping techniques’, says Avinash Karmarkar, VP for Vasudha Farms Initiative.


‘When you switch to multi-cropping, you’re making your farm more sustainable and resilient to climate change. You’re earning year-round. You’re using biopesticides so the environment is cleaner, which leads to fewer health problems. And, for the first time, you’re also producing essential nutritious food for your families instead of buying all of it from the market’, explains Avinash.


The hard work has paid off. Total net income from cotton was 9% higher for organic project farmers when compared to control farmers. This can be attributed to lower production costs for organic farming and better prices received for organic cotton because of farmer differentials that provided an additional 10% on top of market price. And, because all transactions to farmers were made through bank accounts, payments to farmers were validated.


While organic cotton has brought revenue, the vegetables and spices have brought supplemental income and nutritional security. ‘My wife quipped that she’s having to cook different dishes every day for the first time because of all the crop we harvested last year. We have made do on simple lentils and wheat rotis for most of our lives. This time, we ate vegetables and proteins for almost two months’, says Sardar Methu, one of the participating farmers.


As a result of this project, his income has increased substantially. Moving forward, he aims to expand multi-cropping, including organic cotton, to all three acres of his land. For Baliram, partnering with OCA, C&A Foundation and Vasudha – and by association, C&A – has brought better health for his family and a more sustained income. ‘My daughters go to college and are aware of the benefits of organic farming. They are proud of my work today and that brings me endless joy’, he says.


For Avinash, the key ingredient of the pilot’s success was the ability to make it completely farmer-centric. ‘We were able to really understand their challenges and struggles. OCA helped us be holistic in our approach and that has yielded results. Next year, we also plan to address the issue of incredibly abusive moneylending practices by introducing microlending, so they don’t end up stuck in an endless cycle of debt’, he says.


Altogether, the results and experiences from the first OCA pilot year provided valuable insights to further improve sourcing projects during the 2018-19 season. OCA will use the learnings for further development of its future Farmer Engagement and Development programme into a scalable, brand-driven sourcing and capacity building programme for organic cotton, aimed at integrity, quality, and prosperity at the farmer level.

C&A Foundation helps organic cotton farmers

In 2018-2019, C&A Foundation helped 49,509 farmers adopt organic cotton cultivation practices with support from partners such as Cotton Connect, Rare, and Action for Social Advancement (ASA), among others. Last year, the Foundation provided over €6.1 million for social and environmental programmes in India, China, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Brazil. It continues to support various multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Organic Cotton Accelerator, Cotton 2040, and Organic and Fairtrade Cotton Secretariat, to create an enabling environment for sustainable cotton in addition to improving farmers’ incomes and livelihoods. Higher farmer incomes not only benefit farming communities, but also pave the way for greater scalability in organic cotton.

C&A Foundation launched its first organic cotton initiative in Tanzania and helped 6,957 farmers adopt organic cotton practices. In Pakistan, C&A Foundation partner WWF, in collaboration with farmers and the Agriculture Extension Department of Balochistan, produced 500 metric tons of certified organic cotton. In India, C&A Foundation and the Government of Madhya Pradesh convened Cotton Trailblazers. This milestone event celebrated the global leadership of the state in organic cotton production, acknowledged the efforts of diverse sector stakeholders, and renewed commitments for regular dialogue.

Read about C&A Foundation’s Sustainable Cotton programme


Where next?

Bolstering the industry

Industry initiatives must align on global standards to provide the vision and drive needed for the industry to thrive. It is only through collective action that we will be able to capitalise on the growing enthusiasm for organic cotton – and ensure that together we can take the sector from strength to strength.

Reaching out to customers

Since early 2018, when we launched our first global customer-facing sustainability communications platform, #WearTheChange, we have communicated with customers in stores, online, and through special events about our more sustainable products and their environmental benefits. We plan to continue communicating our more sustainable cotton products to customers throughout 2019 under the #WearTheChange umbrella platform.

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