This first section of the guide puts forward the case for sustainable cotton.

We explore the challenges with conventional cotton before presenting the challenges and huge opportunities of more sustainable production. This section closes with a guide to getting started on your sustainable sourcing journey.

Cotton touches most of us every day. Although figures fluctuate, it represents about 30% of all fibre used in the textile sector. Globally, around 30 million hectares are planted with cotton, accounting for more than 2% of total arable land, and producing approximately 25 million metric tonnes (MT) of cotton annually.

Cotton is grown in over 80 countries and its production supports the livelihoods of over 350 million people, including between 50 to 100 million farmers.

Cotton is loved for many reasons.

why is cotton such an amazing material?

Cotton is a versatile fibre that can be woven into many fabrics, from denim to lace. It can be easily dyed, and blended with other types of fibres, like polyester.

Because it’s so widely available, the price of cotton is affordable.

Cotton fibres are tough and durable. It’s the only fibre that becomes even stronger when wet. Clothes made from cotton can be worn, washed and worn again and again.

Because cotton can tolerate very hot water and high temperatures, it’s easy to sterilise, making it the fibre of choice for hospital clothing and accessories, as well as firefighting and other emergency services’ uniforms.

Fabrics made of cotton are soft and non-irritating – they don’t scratch or chafe the skin. Cotton is one of the only natural fibres that cause virtually no allergic reactions, making it ideal for babies and people with sensitive skin, or those prone to skin problems such as eczema.

Cotton fabric allows skin to breathe. It draws moisture away from the body, which means in hot weather it keeps you dry, and in cool weather provides great insulation.

It’s breathable and doesn’t retain odours.

Cotton is biodegradable and a renewable resource (though it can use non-renewable resources in the growing process).

Cotton fibres can be re-used and recycled. Given the right technology, cotton fabric can be broken down and the fibres recycled into new yarn, or even into paper.

Cotton is an important rotation crop for smallholders, both for fibre, fuel and food (such as cotton seed oil). The cash income it generates is vital to improved living standards.

Cotton is the fabric of choice for so many styles and uses; it’s hard to imagine life without it. But in the face of a changing world and climate, with issues like water scarcity, decreasing soil quality, and increased pressures on agricultural land, we can’t take the future supply of cotton for granted.

Good due diligence by companies, as per guidelines from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), will help us understand these issues across multiple supply chains. In turn, this will help us take the right corrective action and report on results.

This guide exists to help brands, retailers and others to source cotton in sustainable ways, so we can continue to enjoy its benefits in the future.

Key facts about cotton

Most years, farmers from over 80 countries produce about 25 million metric tonnes of cotton, making it the world’s most abundantly produced natural textile.

It makes up nearly 30% of global textile production and it has a history dating back over 8,000 years.

The fibre from one 227kg cotton bale can produce 215 pairs of jeans, 250 single bed sheets, 1,200 t-shirts, 2,100 pairs of boxer shorts, 3,000 nappies, 4,300 pairs of socks or 680,000 cotton balls.

The global average water footprint of seed cotton is 3,644 cubic metres per tonne, the equivalent of nearly 1.5 Olympic swimming pools

Globally, we grow an estimated 60% of our cotton in irrigated fields and 40% under rain-fed conditions.

Over 60% of cotton is produced by smallholder farmers in developing countries, who are some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

From niche to mainstream

Over the past 30 years, many standards and programmes have been developed that are making good progress towards addressing issues related to cotton production.

However, despite the resulting market growth of sustainably grown cotton, it is still a niche product. For 2016/17, the total volume of sustainable cotton was estimated to be 15% of global production, but only a fifth of this was bought by companies. As a result, the remaining cotton is sold as conventional, creating less “pull” from the market to encourage increased sustainable production.

By increasing the availability of more sustainable cotton, we can make it easier for brands and retailers to make and keep sourcing commitments to buy it.

By raising awareness among brands, retailers and others in the industry about the importance of sustainable cotton, and by making it easier to source across a range of standards, together we can make sustainable cotton the mainstream choice.

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