Social and environmental risks in cotton trade

Abdul Wadud,  Project Director of Jute diversification project of Sonali Aansh GROUP Consultant, TRANSFORM E-mail:     
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On 3rd of October 2017 an academic seminar was arranged on “Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade (SMART) at Uttara Club, jointly organized by BUFT, Nyenrode Business University and University of Oslo. This paper was presented in the seminar by the author.

Social and environmental risks in conventional cotton trade:

Cotton being an agricultural commodity is vulnerable to weather, water availability and irrigation, soil condition and choice of fertilizer, seed variety and choice of seeds, diseases and handling with pesticides and chemicals, availability and choice of inputs, cultivation practices and methods, price volatility, supply chain transparency and effective research and training to make it viable socially, environmentally and economically.

How to minimize these risks?

We are basically talking about two major types of risks; Systematic and Non-systematic risks or Un-controllable and Controllable risks.

If we have a look at the different concepts of “Sustainable Cotton” we can easily find out that all of them are focused to eliminate the Controllable risks. It may differ from one approach to the other but each concept touches or tries to eliminate or minimize some of the Controllable risks.

Table – 1: Controlable social and environmental risk minimization through different sustainable cotton initiatives.
Controllable Risks Organic BCI CmiA Fair Trade LEADS
Encourage indigenous seed varieties which supports local eco-system Ö Ö Ö
Ensures that during cotton cultivation no hazardous chemicals and pesticides are being used Ö
Water conservation and ways out Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö
During cotton cultivation, ensures no fertilizer, pesticides and chemicals are used other than organic Ö
Scientific use of fertilizer, pesticides and chemicals Ö Ö Ö Ö
Good agronomical and labour practice Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö
Ensures TRACEBILITY in the value chain Ö Ö Ö Ö Ö


We can see from the Table-1, that all the Sustainable Cotton initiatives are playing important roles in minimizing the controllable social and environmental risks.

That is why most of the retailers and brands are promoting sustainable cotton and as per the BCI FACT SHEET 2017, “In 2016, less than 20% of global cotton production was independently verified as grown using more sustainable practices….” which is very encouraging.

In spite of the positive roles, being played by sustainable cotton initiatives, there are some flowed miss-conceptions that are hindering the further growth of demand for sustainable cotton. Some of these are mentioned in the following Table-2.

Table – 2: Some miss-conceptions about sustainable cotton initiatives.
Sustainable cotton Wrong perceptions
Organic Many people wrongly believe that it is just a piece of paper. Real organic cotton price should be 40-50 cents/lb more than the conventional cotton.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)


Cotton made in Africa (CmiA)

Many people people believe that “Mass Balancing” is not proper. But don’t understand that it has given more flexibility and eventually turned more cotton into sustainable cotton which is minimizing social and environmental risks.

On top of that New Concept of “Physical BCI” is emerging where mass balancing is not allowed. In case, of CmiA, Hard Identification Process (HIP) is there right from the beginning.

Fair Trade (FT) Not in demand
LEADS Retailers and Brands are not interested.


Way forward to increase the demand of sustainable cotton:

The future success lies in positioning or re-positioning the perception on Sustainable Cotton Initiatives to the entire value chain, focused on the following two angles: –

  1. Highlighting the positive roles of sustainable cotton initiatives and
  2. Removal of miss-conceptions about sustainable cotton initiatives.

Source of non-cotton sustainable fibre:

Resources are limited and we need to make the best use of our available resources, with consideration economic, environmental and social aspects involved around it. We can also ponder on the following two scopes of available sustainable fibre: –

  1. Jute: Bangladesh produces one of the best jute in the world. But we need to think of ways to make jute blended yarn to make high end denim, home textiles and suiting items. Jute being bio-degradable has immense opportunity to replace poly bags.
  2. Recycled garments/fabric fibre: Huge amount of garments cutting are wasted and dumped that creates hazards. These cutting can be transformed into fibre to make useful products.

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