Better Cotton Initiative: How retailers can commit to a Better Supply Chain
When we look at the impact a material we use has on the environment, we need to look at its lifecycle. It is important to know how it is grown or the process of extraction, the production processes, the method of transportation and how it is sold and used. It is only when we know the overall impact that a change can be made in the production process.
While cotton textile is a staple material used in clothes, bed sheets, towels, drapery – its use causes the greatest environmental impact. The impact is growing with cotton production increasing to meet the world’s growing demand. Currently cotton accounts for 40% of the world’s textile production – and uses approximately 10% of the world's agricultural chemicals.
Global cotton production comes increasingly from countries where laws about pesticide and fertilizer use are lax and the farmers are paid low wages. These countries rely heavily on the exports of this cash crop. Unfortunately, intense competition has kept the price of cotton to a minimum while inputs and costs of production have increased. The increased use of pesticides impacts the health of the farmers. Additionally, the cotton crop is becoming highly vulnerable to pests and to the decreased availability of water. The crop production process thus needs to be addressed to keep the current supply of cotton.
Moving towards a Sustainable Supply of Cotton
The Better Cotton Initiative was established in 2005 by a group of retailers. Their objective was “to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future”. The advantage to the retailers in investing in the BCI are multifold - the most important being it would secure a future supply of cotton. Today famous retailers such as Adidas, Nike, Ikea and Levi Strauss & Co participate in the BCI.
The BCI has four aims:
• Reduce the environmental impact of cotton production
• Improve livelihoods and economic development in cotton producing areas
• Improve commitment to and flow of Better Cotton throughout the supply chain
• Ensure the credibility and sustainability of the Better Cotton Initiative
The BCI is trying to achieve the production of more sustainable cotton (cotton with a lower environmental impact and better economic impact) by building the capacity of all of its stakeholders. This means the farmers, ginners, suppliers and retailers. Each is taught the benefits of sustainable cotton and how to document the inputs at each stage which can lead to the certification of the entire production process with the Better Cotton Standard System. While the Better Cotton Standard is applicable to farmers, ginners also receive training for monitoring – playing an important role “as an actor that bridges farm level and the global cotton supply chain”.
Becoming a Better Cotton Licensed Farmer
The BCI’s work with farmers includes training the farmers how to grow cotton to give an optimum yield. Farmers are trained on Better Production Principles: crop protection; water; soil health; natural habitats; fiber quality and decent work, and a number of production criteria. This has in many instances been undertaken by understanding many of the traditional practices that were used 30 to 40 years ago. This includes the ideal time of watering the crops, method of picking cotton, and soil maintenance. Many of these practices had been lost by the lure of modern methods such as the use of fertilizers. Farmers were using fertilizers and even pesticides without knowing the proper methods. This led to overuse, causing negative impact to cotton crops.
To become a Better Cotton licensed farmer, the farmer has to maintain a log book – the Farmer Field Book, recording his methods of cotton production such as the use of fertilizers, pesticides, water, yield, and profits. The data gathered is used to compare with farmers not taking part in the BCI. The BCI uses the data to monitor and evaluate the positive results. BCI farmers are getting better yields in all of the regions where it is currently being practiced.
Supporting initiatives by shopping from retailers investing in the Better Cotton Initiative
As consumers we have become aware of how the decisions we make impact the environment and society. By choosing to buy products made from BCI certified cotton we choose to reduce our impact on the environment. We also choose to improve the livelihoods of the producers with better wages, and improving health as they use fewer pesticides in the production. A conscious decision is the only way to move forward.
When I started doing the research for this article, the very first thing I was impressed by was the number of options available.
So, while I have listed three companies that I found with unique ideas and interesting clothing, if they don’t seem like the right fit for you, do a quick internet search and I’m sure something will turn up.
Blue Canoe Organic www.bluecanoe.com
Blue Canoe is run by women and designed for women.
Started by founder Laurie Dunlap in 1994, the company was created with an aim to produce US made, organic women’s clothing. They wanted to create real world, stylish and sophisticated designs that would appeal to a broad spectrum of eco and health conscious women.
Because they use both organic cotton and bamboo fibers, as well as nontoxic dyes, their products are both environmentally friendly, and generally safe for those with skin sensitivities.
In addition to providing stylish organic fabric designs, their clothing is manufactured in the US which is what they call “from fabric to finish.” This minimizes their carbon footprint, supports the local economy, and allows them much more accessible oversight ensuring their products continue to be manufactured according to their quality principles.
Now-a-days it is often that environmentally conscious clothing is a bit pricier than what you might find at your local clothing retailer. However, for those working on a budget I strongly suggest checking out their sales section for some great deals.
I will also say, of all the companies I looked at, Blue Canoe had the greatest number of designs that I could easily wear to my day job and yet would still want to wear on the weekends.
Earth Creations www.earthcreations.net
Earth Creations has designs for the whole family, and they have a very unique process of using natural clay dyes to color all of their fabrics.
As the story goes, there was a bike ride and some Alabama mud that no matter how many times the stained clothing was washed, the color of the mud just wouldn’t come out. As a result of this, in combination with the insight and creativity of founders Joy Maples and Mark Ledvina, a new environmentally friendly dye was created and a company established.
While the partnership of Joy and Mark started almost two decades ago, it wasn’t until 1997 that they introduced an organic cotton t-shirt line. Now, seven years later, they use both hemp and organic cotton for their clothing line. In addition to their use of renewable fiber sources, clay and low impact dyes, the company supports Fair Trade and Sweatshop-free manufacturing.
Their sewing plant is located here in Moulton Alabama, which helps minimize their carbon footprint, allows for greater oversight of production, and supports the local economy. Notably, they also donate irregular products and overstock items to groups helping those in need.
Earth Creations does have clothing lines for the whole family. However, their women’s line has the most diverse offerings. They have everything from your basic t-shirt to convertible/multi use garments. Their men’s line is a bit less developed, consisting of long and short sleeved t-shirts. So not exactly one-stop shopping for the discerning gentleman, but what they do have are fun, eco-friendly designs. Personally, I love their youth and infant line, especially the onesies, they are adorable and what better to put on a baby’s sensitive skin?
Farm Fresh Clothing Co. www.farmfreshclothingco.com
The last company I want to talk about is by far the youngest, established in 2010, and are based out of Sebastopol, California. This is strictly a t-shirt company, at least at the moment, but I couldn’t resist mentioning them for a couple of reasons.
First, their t-shirts are made from 100% certified organic cotton. Additionally, they use eco-friendly water based inks and the t-shirts are US made in California. Now, while all of these are wonderful features, the two companies I have already mentioned have similar attributes. However, one thing that is completely unique to the Farm Fresh Clothing Co. is that you can order custom designs from them and the designs that they do offer are incredibly hip.
Their prices are a little above what you might pay for a conventional t-shirt, averaging $35 each. However, given that they are 100% organic cotton and made in the US, I would consider them very fair. I know personally, there are a number of designs that I think are pretty irresistible.
Well, I hope you all had as much fun reading about these companies as I did writing and researching them. It is encouraging to discover just how many clothing options there are out there for the environmentally conscious consumer.
If we choose to buy our clothes after understanding where and how they have been produced, we can bring about a change of culture in the clothing industry. When we buy clothes from retail brands that have produced apparel or material in a socially responsible and environmentally accountable manner, we are saying “no” to sweatshop labor, overuse of pesticides in cotton production, and buying goods at poor pricing.
It is important to realize the impact of what we buy in looking at the source of the product. In addition to other impacts, the textile sector is the 5th largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in the US. The only way there can be change is if we choose to ask the following questions: Where is it made? How is it made? Who made it?
The fact of the matter is that the clothes we buy from our well known chain store brands are often produced more than half a world away. Can the clothing brand guarantee the working conditions are at par with the required regulations in the United States? If it does give an assurance of good working conditions in an environmentally friendly manner, how do we know it is not mere green washing?
Most clothing labels are moving toward a more sustainable way of production, and vetting it by third party certifications. This can help establish the credibility of the product by proving it is what it claims to be. The certification is done by independent third parties, and if your clothing carries a label of the certification, then you can rest assured of its production process.
Common certification bodies and labels verify practices for:
- Reporting a water footprint thus using water in a sustainable manner
- Minimal amounts of pesticides in cotton and wool
- Organically grown cotton
- Organic dyes
- Safe working environment
- Child-free labor
- Offering a fair price for raw materials to the farmers
- Energy efficient machinery
- Reporting a carbon footprint
A number of global fashion labels are working toward more sustainable fashion. Designers such as Stella McCartney and Study NY promote sustainable fashion in their designs, choosing to go for material in their designs. Larger labels such as LEVIS and H&M have been looking at reducing their impact in a serious manner as they focus on reducing water use. LEVIS has recently tried producing jeans using recycled water in a factory in China.
H&M is working to improve water management in the Taihu Basin in the delta of the Yantze River. This area is responsible for 13% of China’s gross domestic product, and while it is Wetland Area, it is also a textile hub providing jobs for many people. All are at risk from a reduction in water supply and deterioration of quality of water. Solidaradad (http://www.solidaridadnetwork.org/) is an NGO working to improve the textile supply chain.
We can find out about the clothes we buy by going to company websites and reading up on their sustainability reports. They will often write about their certification processes and the new developments to make their businesses more sustainable. The websites also give a contact address or number to answer any questions consumers might have.
If companies feel their customers are concerned about the impact of the production process on the environment, they will work to reduce their impacts. So don’t forget to do a little research before you buy your clothes.
If we start thinking about our lives impacting the environment by the choices we make, we need to look at all aspects of our lifestyles. The key lies in reducing our overall ecological footprint. This includes looking at the clothes and bedding we buy. It is imperative today to think of the impacts on society and the environment when we buy a piece of clothing. Over 2,000 chemicals are needed to turn raw materials into finished fabrics – from pesticides and weed killer, to bleach and dyes and other treatments to come up with the final product. Whilst life has become more colorful since the discovery of the dye Mauve/Mauvine from coal tar residue in the 1850s, it has left an incredible impact on the environment.
As we all know, most of the clothes we buy have been produced in China or a country in South Asia. It has been reported in the press that dye houses not only use large quantities of water but dump dyes into the water system which renders the local farmland useless. The textile industry has a large water footprint. Most dye houses are found in developing countries, as weaker regulation in these countries enable big multinational clothing giants to get the right prices for their clothing and bedding.
One way of reducing our own eco-footprint is searching for materials which have a low footprint. We could start looking at materials using organic dyes. Organic dyes have been used for centuries and often give a natural look to clothing. The dyes do not offer the same variety of the color as synthetic dyes but can be mixed in different ways to give the required pleasing look.
Natural dyes are made with a variety of extracts from minerals, plants, and animals. Most of the techniques and designs of natural dyes are in production in the South Asia, where a lot of the dyeing still takes place in pure silk and pure cotton. The prints using these dyes are aesthetically pleasing and are often sold as special outfits. It must be realized though that some of the dyes used will also have an impact on the environment as they use heavy metals which will then be discharged into the environment. Often natural dyes need to be added with a mordant which helps increase the color intensity in the dyed cloth. Some natural mordants, such as rhubarb leaves, are poisonous and need to be handled with care.
Most colors produced by natural dyes are pleasing to the eye and a variety of methods can be explored to build designs based on natural dyes. This can be done through researching regions and cultures which have a long history of using natural dyes in design particularly the region known as the Silk Route. Block printing is an age old method of using carved blocks to build intricate designs on cloth. Silk painting is a well known feature of the East. Other methods include using wax to build a design using colors – batik. This includes the common tie-dye technique we use today.
Whilst using natural dye will lead to more eco-friendly dyeing, and thus products with lower footprints, there is a need to document the impact of the different stages of the production process and identify the methods of disposal for each dye. Here, a certified product, a product which has been checked to be what it is stated to be, can make a difference. It is only then that we can reduce the impact of the clothing we buy to a minimum.
I enjoy wearing sweatpants and jammie bottoms to lounge around the house in, but several months ago I ordered some lounge pants from Cottonique and now they have become my favorite house pants. These pants are the softest organic cotton pants I have ever come across. They are more of a warm weather pant as the fabric is thin. They also work well for winter long johns under jeans. The most comfortable part is the draw string waist. You can adjust it to the most comfortable size and it has no irritating or binding elastic. Take a look at their website here to find the pants and other organic basics. http://www.cottonique.com/