Retailers Opt For Sustainable Cotton To Keep Pace With Consumer Demand

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Cotton, the most widely used natural fibre, is considered the world's dirtiest crop because of its heavy use of pesticides – its cultivation accounts for 17.5% of global insecticide sales. So in recent years, several apparel and home-goods companies, including Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Nike, have used organic cotton, grown by farmers who eschew pesticides and enrich their soil with compost. That's good for the environment but raises another big problem: Organic cotton is too expensive for average shoppers. Organic fibre cost as much as $2.20 per pound, versus about 61¢ for conventional cotton, in the 2015-16 growing season. That's kept demand low; less than 1% of the world's cotton production is organic.

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Over the past nine years, Ikea, Zara and H&M, among others, have signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a coalition of farmers, garment makers, and retailers committed to producing and using sustainable cotton at accessible prices. BCI farmers are taught how to grow sustainable cotton using less pesticide and water-reducing stress on the environment-at a cost close to that of regular fibre. "That's one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses," says Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea. Since 2009, the retailer has increased the percentage of Better Cotton used in its products, from sheets to furniture. In fiscal 2015, 70% of the cotton Ikea used was Better Cotton.

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Similar efforts, like Bayer CropScience's e3 sustainable cotton programme, which works with farmers to ensure they're producing cotton responsibly, are increasing supplies of sustainable cotton. The material can help companies appeal to millennials and environmentally minded customers. "Offering a product with a sustainability cachet but not the added cost may meet the sweet spot of pleasing both a consumer's conscience and wallet," says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Gregory Elders.

In 2015, Nike and H&M used more sustainable cotton than organic cotton for the first time. Better cotton has grown to around 12% of global cotton production in 2015, versus 0.5% for organic, according to BCI. Says BCI Chief Operating Officer Lena Staafgard, "By 2020 our goal is to reach 5 million farmers worldwide and account for 30% of global cotton production."     

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