Global Cotton Programme Manager Solidaridad
Leaders show that it can be done
Sustainable Cotton Ranking 2020 reveals significant progress made by big brands towards more sustainable cotton. What is also evident is that the divide is growing between companies that take their responsibilities seriously and the many laggard companies that do not. Isabelle Roger, Global Cotton Programme Manager of Solidaridad, one of the three organisations behind the ranking, speaks to Subir Ghosh about the issues that emerged from the 2020 ranking.
One cursory look at the findings, and what would you say has changed since the last Sustainable Cotton Ranking (SCR) 2017? Would you say the ground situation has improved?
What has definitely changed is that we see progress from some companies that were just starting the journey in 2017. Now we have 11 leaders; we had only five in 2017. Companies like Bestseller, Decathlon and Adidas have made significant progress. What is also striking is what has not changed. We still have companies that have not started the journey and are still in the red.
The subjects of sustainability / circularity seem to have taken centrestage in all textile-related discourse in the last 2–3 years (say, since SCR 2017). So, it is extremely surprising that so many companies should score zero in the latest rankings. How would you react to that?
Yes, it is surprising, and indeed shocking that three-quarters of sustainable cotton is sold as conventional cotton, and that farmers end up selling their cotton as conventional cotton due to lack of demand. I think these brands are just failing to take their responsibilities seriously. Otherwise, this gap between demand and supply wouldn’t be an issue. And the rankings also show that there is an increasing gap between companies that do take responsibility and those that don’t.
Your analysis makes it clear that while some progress has been made, there remains much to be done. But roughly three years in between was surely a long time for many to pull up their socks. Do you think there needs to be more pressure on brands to act on sustainable cotton?
In short, yes. We do think that more pressure / scrutiny is needed. And scrutiny is what we are trying to bring about with this ranking-by showing what’s the situation, who’s making an effort and who’s not-and at the same time, while bringing about the scrutiny, we are also here to support companies that are willing to improve. It has never been easy, but it is possible to make progress as some companies are showing. We are also here to help them.
It has to be about engagement; it cannot be confrontation.
Yes, companies need support. They can learn from their peers; they can partner with civil society organisations. It is about the willingness. Yes, sustainability is a lot of work, but it’s possible.
Talking of willingness, it is extremely surprising that a third of all assessed companies (27) have no policy on cotton sustainability. Isn’t that extremely surprising?
Yes, it is disappointing. Policy is the first step towards sourcing sustainable cotton. It is probably not an easy one, but arguably it is the easiest. Also, after a few years of running this ranking, we see that all the companies that have adopted policies later have made progress in traceability and also uptake of sustainable cotton. So, policy remains an important first step.
Something on the methodology. Why did you decide to stick to the earlier three parameters (policy / uptake / traceability) as also the weightage?
It is the same; that’s true. First, we kept it the same because we did not receive any critical feedback on the methodology. It seems to have been quite well accepted. We still want to make uptake of sustainable cotton the centre stage in this ranking. Policy and traceability are very important but are more like groundwork. Ultimately, we will be judging companies by how much (of sustainable cotton) they are taking in. The advantage of keeping the methodology the same is that it allows for comparable results. It allows us to see if there is any progress, or not.
Why don’t you have a separate parameter on transparency? [I know this is mentioned / explained in the Methodology section]. Is it because you see all three parameters and results through the prism of transparency?
Yes, transparency is really underpinning the methodology. Companies only obtain points when we can verify the answer to a question from publicly available source(s). The reason why we think that transparency is so important is that companies can be held accountable. If you adopt a public policy, then everyone—from civil society to consumers—can then check the reports against these policies. Also, when you are transparent, you also become a leader. When you are transparent you share your experience about sustainability, and you may well inspire others.
But still enough, have you noticed discrepancies in the policies? [w.r.t “relatively few companies have policies on pesticides, water, biodiversity, human rights, and recycling”] Do you think the policies are robust and future-proof, at all?
There are companies that are doing less well (than others). Many companies address the subject of sustainability through sustainability standards of organisations that they are a member of. We think that’s great. But the reason why we have these specific questions on pesticides, etc, is that we want to make them think about these specific issues that are specific to cotton cultivation. Ultimately, we don’t want them to hide behind sustainability standards. We want them to be aware of the issues faced by farmers. This is what we consider a robust policy-when you go beyond just ticking a box (on a checklist) and adopting a sustainability standard, and are fully aware of what are the issues that need to be tackled at the farm level.
In developing a policy, ideally you want the policy to be forward-looking and remain valid for as long as possible. At the same time, the definition of what’s sustainable is evolving, and is generally progressing towards a more demanding definition. Also, the reality on the ground is changing. In some countries the situation is improving, in some worsening. I think companies should be a bit agile with their policies and adapt to both increasing demands as well as changing realities on the ground.
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