Talking to your suppliers is an important milestone in your journey to sustainable sourcing, and there are a few steps to take before you make first contact.

Understanding your sourcing aims and approach

Sourcing sustainable cotton can be as simple as finding the right swatch at a fabric fair and placing an order. Or, it can involve working with your suppliers – new or existing – to create a new supply chain that meets your particular sustainability needs.

Before you start talking to your suppliers, make sure you understand your business’ sourcing aims – what kind of cotton you want, how much and by when. We typically recommend taking a portfolio approach to meet your priorities and progress towards your targets more efficiently.

Determining where to start

More sustainable cotton is split into two categories. You need to know which type you want to source, or whether you’re happy with a mix (our recommended approach).

Quality Specific Cotton

Find the right quality: Quality specific cotton is traced along its whole supply chain, from farm/facility to end product. Buyers choose qualities that meet their product specifications and typically purchase directly from the supply chain.

Use: Because quality specific cotton is segregated from non-sustainable cotton throughout the supply chain, it’s easy to integrate into your current system and make on-product claims.

Certify: Scope certificates confirm a unit is approved to sell the fibres, transaction certificates travel with the cotton along its supply chain, and a final certificate is passed from the mill to the Cut, Make and Trim facility.

Mass Balance Cotton

Programmes using mass balance do not require sustainable and non-sustainable cotton to be segregated in the supply chain. This means you can source the same cotton as normal, while also investing in more sustainable cotton farming. These programmes require membership, and we explain the typical steps below.

Understand your baseline: To work out your membership fee, you’ll need a year’s worth of your production data (the last calendar year), grouped by a) product type and b) fibre content.

Identify your top suppliers: Who are the biggest actors in your supply chain? They will be key partners in achieving your sourcing goals.

Determine priority suppliers: Select a shortlist of suppliers you have a good relationship with and/or strong influence over; they will tend to be keener to assist with your sourcing priorities!

Check relevant supplier lists: Check relevant bodies to see if your suppliers are already listed in their programme. With this information, it’s time to ask your suppliers to switch their cotton source for your product. Suppliers can start aligning your purchase orders with the requirements of mass balance chain of custody as required by the sustainability programme.

Setting your aspirations and determining your approach

It is important to set the right foundations as you start to source more sustainable cotton. For starters, ask yourself: who do I need to involve and what steps do we need to take next?

Every organisation is different, but – in general – the key people to involve at the start of your sustainable cotton sourcing journey include:

  • Designers/Buyers/Fabric Buyers/Technicians – Designers and buyers are well-placed to search for sustainable fibre options for their products.
  • Production/Sourcing – Production teams can advise you of the best suppliers for sustainable cotton.
  • Quality/QC – Involve your QC team early to engage them in the reasons behind any change and to ensure new qualities meet existing standards.
  • Finance – Get support from finance for any extra costs.
  • Marketing – Understand how to communicate your sustainable activities.

Once you have chosen the right standard and approach for your organisation, ensure that all conditions for using the sustainable cotton are met. For example, that your membership is validated, or that the suppliers processing the cotton are able to do so in accordance with the requirements of the sustainability programme’s chain of custody or other requirements.

The ability to document your sustainable sourcing of cotton-containing products is essential if you want to demonstrate performance against internal targets. It is important to think carefully about which data or procedures you need as you set up any internal documentation system. Ensure that you know which suppliers your cotton-containing products are coming from – this will enable the due diligence required by the cotton options where you need certification. Some cotton options do not require certification, like the BCI programme, which has an online verification tool, the Better Cotton Platform, and would need to be integrated into your business process

Your organisation will probably already have a collection of systems to manage and record purchasing. It is worth thinking about if and how you can use these. For example, is it possible to enter sustainable cotton composition instead of a standard composition when running a report? There might also be opportunities to adapt and use existing tools. For example, some buying systems have modules that enable tracking.

If no existing systems seem useful, it is important you start working with your team and the relevant departments to figure out how purchases can be recorded.

Acquire access to a relevant industry tool for the sustainability standards and certification schemes you decide to adopt (e.g. the Better Cotton Platform). There are useful industry tools to help with your sourcing and bespoke systems are an option. BCI Membership is obligatory for retailers and brands, and includes access to the Better Cotton Platform which documents the Better Cotton Chain of Custody as you source cotton-containing products as Better Cotton. It registers the ‘Better Cotton Claim Units’ (or BCCUs) credited to your account by your suppliers. Be aware that use of the Better Cotton Platform is governed by the Better Cotton Chain of Custody which requires membership for certain categories of your suppliers.


You can access a more detailed version of the information on this page here.

You can view a flowchart with all the steps covered in this section here.

Production volumes of more sustainable cotton by geography.

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