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Reflections on World Cotton Day: Lessons Learned from Building Uptake of Sustainable Cotton

October 7, 2022 | Insights,


Cotton is one of the world’s leading commodities and its production can be associated with significant social, environmental and economic impacts.

On World Cotton Day, five years since the inception of the Cotton 2040 initiative, programme facilitators Neil Walker from Forum for the Future and Nicola Thornley from Anthesis reflect on what we have achieved and learned through the initiative in building uptake of sustainable cotton with 11 brands and retailers.

For more information on the Cotton 2040 initiative, click here.

“The programme encouraged us to increase our intentionality to source more sustainable cotton… by learning how to baseline and calculate procurement, and improving understanding of sustainable cotton standards”

Cotton 2040 Participant


Cotton touches most of us every day, from the sheets we sleep on to the towels we use and the clothes we wear. It is grown in over 80 countries and supports the livelihoods of around 350 million people.

However, unless sustainably produced, the way cotton is grown can cause major environmental damage, and smallholder farmers and those who process cotton, often work in poor conditions with little pay. The negative social, economic and environmental impacts of conventional cotton production can no longer be ignored. Neither can the additional climate change pressures, including changing rainfall patterns, water availability, rising temperatures and competition for land and fuel, and yet, developing sourcing strategies across the multiple options were often complicated and time-consuming, which presented a barrier to uptake.

That’s why, in 2017, we created the Cotton 2040 initiative, a collaborative programme facilitated by Forum for the Future and supported by the Laudes Foundation and delivery partners such as Anthesis, WTW and the World Resources Institute. Cotton 2040’s original aim was to mainstream sustainable cotton by aligning industry actors around the issues critical to cotton’s future. The workstream delivered in collaboration with Anthesis focused on supporting 11 fashion brands and retailers located across the world to increase their uptake of sustainable cotton, focusing on short-term solutions within a broader agenda of long-term change. Our specific aims were to:

  1. Demystify options for procuring sustainable cotton and the implications of choosing one or another, and;
  2. Understand how to implement the adoption of selected standards or codes into their procurement.

The immediate successes include each of the 11 participating organisations now having endorsed and integrated sustainable sourcing strategies. In addition, on average, current sourcing of sustainable cotton across the participating companies now sits at 40% of overall procured volumes, and further commitments to procure 85% sustainable cotton by 2025 are secured.

Here, we take a closer look at the challenges faced by the brands and retailers on this journey, and the valuable lessons learnt from the Cotton 2040 collaboration which helped them overcome them.

“The sharp rise in commodity prices risks slowing our progress”

Cotton 2040 Participant

Facing macro and micro challenges

The programme, much like the learning cohort, faced several challenges. Inescapably, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the industry not only on a global level, but in cascading and recurring occurrences, repeatedly shutting down manufacturing hubs across key sourcing regions, and changing annual patterns of consumption in Western markets.

The journey the learning cohort began preceded the pandemic but, as with everything else, would be defined by its complexity and disruption. Maintaining engagement with a cadre of brands and retailers firefighting short-term crises was a key challenge throughout -encouraging businesses to think long term about their commitments to sustainability, and how they might achieve them despite increased costs as margins were being impacted by external crises, equally so.

At a more micro level, we had successfully recruited a diverse cohort of brands located around the world, including India, Japan, the UK and France, that had significantly different scales in terms of volume of cotton procured and goods sold, turnover, and business models. This had implications for how a capacity building programme might be designed, with the consideration required for timezones, linguistic differences, and cultural divergences, the latter including variance in domestic and political pressure on sustainability, or even what sustainable may mean in respective contexts.

Throughout this process, we have learned three key principles that helped us to establish best practices for our collaboration in building uptake of sustainable cotton:

  1. Openness: The practice of openness and trust can be much more possible in the sustainability space than in the typical interactions between businesses. Despite their differences in turnover, sales volume or geographical reach, the challenges of engaging with sustainable cotton were shared with honesty and in a constructive spirit. In creating spaces in which candid discourse can happen across stakeholders and across the system, we can see real and perceived pain points in the journey to be sustainable. An example of this was the price of sustainable cotton. Another was claims of sustainability – when using mass balance, it’s difficult to guarantee origin. The programme gave the brands an opportunity to voice these concerns and has led to a move to other means of sourcing sustainably produced cotton.
  2. Action-based: In the face of the emergent challenges faced by the brands and retailers in the cohort, it was clear that in addition to a space in which they could share mutual obstacles, there was a real benefit in having a programme based on education and action. In addition to capacity building, setting clear ambitions and providing a roadmap for how they might build strategies and partnerships around that had mutually beneficial goals. Capacity building bolsters the role of the sustainability manager internally, who can be siloed within their teams and away from business operations. Likewise, building momentum around action speaks to an organisation’s business and sustainability goals. Both encourage greater participation and commitment.
  3. Iterative and cross-cutting: In a world of rapid change and shifting priorities, a key point of discussion has been how to incorporate iteration and intersectionality into design. This workstream was developed with an eye on upskilling brands as quickly as possible in sourcing sustainable cotton, thus was activity-heavy in the first year of the programme. This was followed by data gathering, and in our final year, working with the two other workstreams of Cotton 2040 to expand their awareness of issues in sustainability beyond sourcing. In some cases, it has not provided sufficient space for emerging topics within sustainable cotton, such as pressure on transparency in value chains, traceability of fibres, new technologies, or voluntary and regulatory reporting. Objectives remain the same, yet market demands and the industry itself are changing.

Keeping focus on outcomes

In our next piece, as part of a three-part series on Cotton 2040, we focus on the outcomes of the initiative and share results from our collaboration. Stay tuned for the next article coming soon.

This blog is part one of a three-part series focusing on the Cotton 2040 initiative. In this series, we discuss what was learned in starting the collaborative, what the brands were able to achieve, and finally, how we see the cotton sector evolving. For more information on the initiative, please visit Cotton 2040 or get in touch below.

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