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Better Cotton Initiative for Sustainable Cotton for Future

In the world market of cotton till now two programs are running in a view to improving cotton farming practices to save the environment and helping cotton farmers and their communities for better living. A) Organic Cotton which emphasize on the elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and B) Fair trade Cotton which focuses on the guaranteeing a minimum price and providing a fair trade premium for social and community based project. But these are only 1-2% of the total world cotton production. So there is a huge gap between the present situation and the initial goals and objective of these two programs. To affect this bulk cotton commodity production another program Better Cotton is just on it`s way to start his journey to achieve the same goals, better environment and better living for the poor farmers.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), is a partnership between major corporations such as Adidas, IKEA, Gap, and H&M, and NGOs such as WWF, recently created a new set of criteria to make conventional cotton cultivation more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. Better Cotton helps to mitigate the various negative social and environmental impacts associated with cotton cultivation that undermine its sustainability. BCI has designed a better cotton system consist of a number of interconnected parts. This system seeks to benefit the environment, cotton producers and their communities, and cotton farm workers. And there initial target is to convert 15% of total conventional cotton production in to Better Cotton by 2012.


Cotton is one of the most important and widely grown crops in the world. It is estimated that nearly 35 million hectares are under cotton cultivation, representing about 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land. About 80 countries produce cotton on a commercial scale and more than 90% of cotton farmers live in developing countries on farms of less than 2 hectares. Nearly everywhere it is grown cotton represents an important cash crop for farmers and an economically valuable part of the total national economy. The International Cotton Advisory Committee estimates that there are about 300 million people who work in the wider cotton industry each year. There are various negative social and environmental impacts associated with cotton cultivation worldwide that undermine its sustainability. Attention is needed at the farm level where serious impacts on people and the environment can occur.

  • Inefficient irrigation techniques, poor cultivation practices, and improper use of pesticides and fertilizers threaten the availability of clean water, soil fertility, human health and biodiversity.
  • As well as the health and safety impacts related to pesticide use,
  • Socio-economic impacts have been reported to include arduous working conditions (particularly for women workers), child labour and forms of forced or bonded labour,
  • As well as indebtedness due to high input prices, crop failure, delayed payment and/or unaffordable rates of interest. Achieving improvements in the social and environmental conditions of cotton production is essential for human and environmental health, the livelihood of millions of people world-wide, and the future of the commodity. The negative effects of using agricultural soils and water resources for cotton production need to be significantly reduced, and production methods need to respect the principles of long-term sustainability. From a social point of view, farmers and workers need to be able to earn their living from growing cotton, without having to take unacceptable risks.

In response to these negative impacts of cotton cultivation the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has been established.


The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), is a partnership between major corporations such as Adidas, IKEA, Gap, and H&M, and NGOs such as WWF, recently created a new set of criteria to make conventional cotton cultivation more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. BCI endeavors to initiate global change in the mass market, with long-term benefits for the environment, farmers and other people dependent on cotton for their livelihood. It aims to promote measurable improvements in the key environmental and social impacts of cotton cultivation worldwide to make it more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

BCI is working with organizations from across the cotton supply chain and interested stakeholders to facilitate a solution for the mainstream cotton sector. The BCI’s philosophy is to develop a market for a new mainstream commodity: ‘Better Cotton’ and thereby transform the cotton commodity to bring long-term benefits for the environment, farmers and other people dependent on cotton for their livelihood. BCI strives for a well balanced financial support avoiding any financial dominance of one specific stakeholder group. BCI is currently funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) of the Swiss Confederation, Interchurch Organisation for Development Co-operation (ICCO) as well as Council members organisations and Better Cotton Partners

BCI Stake holders:

  • Brands / Retailers : M&S, Otto, Timberland, Nike, Walmart
  • Producer and Industry representatives: Australia, India, West Africa, Brazil
  • NGOs : Pesticides Action Network, Fair Trade Labeling
  • International: FAO ( Observer ), Various scientific and technical market experts.

BCI Steering Committee:

Adidas , Gap, H&M, IKEA, Organic Exchange, ICCO, UNEP, Conservation International, Oxfam GB, WWF.

Objective for Better Cotton Production:

BCI aims to promote measurable improvements in the key environmental and social impacts of cotton cultivation worldwide to make it more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. There objectives are:

  • Improve water use efficiency
  • Reduce pesticide toxicity (per MT of production)
  • Reduce energy use
  • Improve soil health and increase soil carbon
  • Eliminate child labor
  • Improve yield and quality
  • Improve net farmer income
  • To facilitate global knowledge exchange on more sustainable cotton production

Goals of BCI:

BCI starts its journey from end of 2004. In the year 2005 to `06, they define and establish the BCI and its organizational structure and in next three phases they finalize the Better Cotton standard. And now they are in state of implement that. Over the next 3 years, in the start up phase of implementing the Better Cotton System, the BCI will work towards realising the following eleven goals by the end of 2012:

1. 15% of global cotton production is represented by the demand of BCI Brand/Retailer members

2. 1.3% of global cotton production (300,000 MT of cotton lint) is produced as Better Cotton in Brazil, India, Pakistan, and West & Central Africa

3. 50% of Better Cotton produced is used by BCI Brand/Retailer members

4. The Be t t e r Cot ton System is developed in China and Central Asia

5. Publ icly avai lable i n f o r m a t i o n i s accessible allowing any country to grow Better Cotton

6. Globa l ly 100,000 farmers are producing Better Cotton

7. Enhanced financial p r o f i t a b i l i t y f o r farmers producing Better Cotton is demonstrated

8. The analysis of data from farm a s s e s sme n t shows positive results

9. B C I h a s a k n owl e d g e e x c h a n g e p l a t f o rm o n growing cotton more sustainably tha t i s inc r e a s ingly us ed ove r t ime

10. The BCI association is operating in line wi th agreed s tatutes and by- laws

11. At leas t 60% of the as sociat ion’ s o p e r a t i n g c o s t s a r e c o v e r e d b y m e m b e r s h i p f e e s To achieve the long term objective and 2012 goals, BCI designed a Better Cotton System.

top_story_clip_image002_0000Better Cotton System:

The Better Cotton System is made up of inter-dependent components and the relationships between these components are supported and facilitated through the BCI membership association. Each component and relationship is equally important for the system to effectively deliver BCI’s long term objectives and goals. The following diagram illustrates the Better Cotton System and identifies each core component that underpins it. The core components of the Better Cotton System comprise:

  • Production Principles and Criteria to provide a global definition of Better Cotton
  • Farmer Support to promote enabling mechanisms at a local and global level, working with experienced implementing partners, and stimulating public-private partnership funds to implement these mechanisms
  • Farm Assessment to encourage farmers to continuously improve, through measuring results and seasonal learning cycles – Supply Chain connecting supply with demand through an identifiable bale of 100% Better Cotton lint
  • Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning mechanisms to measure progress and change and to ensure the Better Cotton System has the intended impacts on its direct beneficiaries
  • Tools, guidelines and learning forums to facilitate the exchange of best practices and knowledge to encourage the scaling up of collective action

Minimum Production Principles and Criteria for Better Cotton:

  • Better Cotton is produced by farmers who minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices
  • Better Cotton is produced by farmers who use water efficiently and care for the availability of water
  • Better Cotton is produced by farmers who care for the health of the soil
  • o Better Cotton is produced by farmers who conserve natural habitats
  • o Better Cotton is produced by farmers who care for and preserve the quality of the fibre
  • o Better Cotton is produced by farmers who promote Decent Work

Certification & Traceability:

There is no certification required for Better cotton as it is ordinary conventional cotton but produced with the Best Management Practices ( BMP ) at the farm level and the cotton bales supplied by designated ginners have ‘Better Cotton’ label on them. Once a bale of Better Cotton is formed, it is given a unique identification that can then be used to track that cotton through the remainder of the supply chain using thirdparty track-and-trace systems. One system will be established that can be differentially applied in all regions regardless of the existing type of seed cotton segment of the supply chain. However a strict traceability needs to be maintained at all levels for the verification of the brands/retailers and others. Monitoring and Measuring the Impact and Success: It is essential for the BCI that changes as a result of working with the Better Cotton System and growing Better Cotton are measured and reported. This requires effective processes for monitoring, evaluation and learning that articulate a theory of change from farm activities to grow Better Cotton, BCI member activities, and BCI Secretariat management to BCI’s long-term objectives and 2012 goals. This relies on the collection of data that is robustly measured and provides useful information for farmers, all BCI members, funders, consumers, partners, and BCI to evaluate success. top_story_clip_image002_0002That is, to know, if the existence of the BCI makes global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.

Business Case For Cotton Farmers

The Better Cotton Initiative depends on the effective realisation of Better Cotton by farmers. One important factor determining the take-up of Better Cotton is the extent to which farmers perceive the cultivation of Better Cotton to be in their interest. Smallholder cotton farmers can directly benefit from the implementation of the Better Cotton System. By implementing the Production Principles promoted by the BCI, and being supported in their implementation through the enabling mechanisms, they can be economically better-off due to reduced input costs while achieving equal or increased yields. In addition to the direct economic benefits to farmers involved in more sustainable cotton practices, a range of other benefits are possible to achieve through the implementation of the Better Cotton System.

top_story_clip_image002_0003In particular BCI intends for Better Cotton to bring about the following benefits to farmers and their communities: Higher quality standards. BCI aims to promote cultivation and harvesting practices which give rise to cotton of greater and more consistent quality. Empowering farmers through organisation (to negotiate/advocate). By strengthening smallholder producer organisations, farmers can advocate and negotiate more effectively, and better participate in policy and decision making processes. Meeting market demand. BCI is working to build a significant level of demand for Better Cotton, by seeking to increase the number of retailers. Better access to affordable finance. BCI intends to harness resources in order to support and extend the provision of affordable forms of financing for cotton farmers through local banks and microfinance institutions. Long-term sustainability of agricultural activity (soil fertility, environmental health). BCI aims to coordinate the provision of information and direct support to help farmers maintain and build the fertility of the soil over time, which in turn has positive impacts on the health of the environment in the communities and ensures high yield and productivity over long-term. Improved health conditions for farmers/workers and the family/community. BCI aims to coordinate the provision of information and direct support to promote reduced and sound use of pesticides.

Correct storage of farm chemicals, handling of pesticide washings and disposal of empty chemical containers reduce health risks through spillage and inappropriate use of empty containers. Access to information. BCI aims to provide access to information about markets, export requirements, formalities, logistics, and especially about current market prices, allowing farmers to improve management of their business. Participatory approach. BCI is committed to an open and participatory process, and invites farmers to become directly involved in defining what sustainable cotton production practices are, from the smallholder farmer’s perspective.


Organic Cotton And Better Cotton Initaitive: The conventional cotton is based on a lot of use of synthetic agri inputs going in to the farming system. And most of the time this synthetic agri inputs are often indiscriminate and had a hazardous effect on environment and consequently in human health. In a view to minimize this threat organic farming method has been introduced. But till now it is only 1% of total cotton production. And there lies a huge gap between modern day resource intensive production agriculture and the organic cultivation of crops. Organic methods of firming prohibit to use of any external synthetic inputs going in to the cultivation process and it is necessary a third party certification on the farming method to claim final product /farm produce to be organic. In fact organic is a tedious process which requires the source poor farmers to be in conversion for 3 years before their produces becomes organic and is valid for certification and all these three years of in conversion are lost as years of low produce without substantial market for in conversion products and hence reduce income.

BCI`s aim is affect the bulk cotton commodity, make them educated best management practices (BMP) to use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and all other farm resources for better environment, better productivity and better production . So though BCI all the limitations of 1. very low production and market share, 2. financial loss of farmer, 3. tedious process of certification can be complemented, with a better social life. Looking to the ease of working with Better Cotton (unlike Organic which requires a lot of certifications at each stage of the supply chain) and its impact on the life of the cotton growers, it appears to be an important role for an early mover advantage.

Implementation Scenario: Pilot projects are slated to test the BCI system in Pakistan, India, Africa, and Brazil to provide sustainable cotton to textile makers and buyers starting next year. For example, the initiative aims to reduce water and pesticide use. Projects underway in Pakistan and India led by WWF and IKEA have led to 75 percent reduction in water and pesticide use, while increase the net revenue to cotton producers by 70 percent.

A WWF-IKEA project that began in 2006 in Andhra Pradesh state in India for more sustainable cotton production on a small scale with around 40 families. Today, the project covers 18 villages and involves around 600 cotton growers. The cotton growers worked with test areas where they test co-planting of crops, look at which pests are active and test biological pesticides.

Alok Industries Ltd & BCI: The annual requirement of ALOK Industries Ltd for conventional cotton fiber for spinning is around 75,000 tons besides another 10,000 tons of Organic and Fair Trade cotton fiber. They are planning to introduce BCI cotton in a big way in their normal cotton consumption planning to reduce impact on the environment and socioeconomic life of millions of farmers and humbly contribute their share to this benign cause. They already at an advance stage of working with IKEA’s home furnishing range which will include Better Cotton in it. M&S and H&M has also shown keen interest to work with them for their knitted and woven fabric requirements.


Climate change is already affecting agriculture across the world as a result of changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme events. These changes will affect those farmers that are least resilient the hardest. These farmers are likely to be the poorest, most marginalised farmers in water stressed regions. Better Cotton production has a twofold role to play: to help cotton farmers to improve their resilience to climate change, and to help mitigate greenhouse gas release through agronomic practices(adapt to change while the promotion of conservation tillage and other practices that sequester carbon or prevent the release of greenhouse gases can lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions) In nutshell, Better Cotton is going to be fast emerging as another important fiber category in the stable of ethical fibers .It is expected to be in the global market from the next year 2010 and hope to spread out it`s market very fast, as all the stake holders are related to throughout cotton supply chain and as well as the customer base is very concerned to find out the way of future green world. And Better cotton is going to be a component of that.


  1. WWW.bettercotton.org
  2. vern.weitzel at gmail.com
  3. Summary of A Round Table for Sustainable & Ethical Cotton held by Environmental Justice Foundation London, 25 April 2007

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