Cotton in the supply chain: not always a fluffy commodity

What are the environmental impacts of cotton in your supply chain?

What are the environmental impacts of cotton in your supply chain?

Green Hotelier Talking Point: Fair Trade and Sustainable Supply Chains.

Concluding our February Talking Point theme on sustainability in supply chains, the team at Better Cotton wonder if you know how sustainable this common commodity is in your supply chain?

If there is one commodity that hotels use a lot of, it’s cotton. From bed sheets to bathrobes, carpets to curtains, and slippers to towels - cotton is a predominant raw material in hotel rooms. It’s curious then that, given the spotlight that has fallen on the apparel industry for the working conditions and environmental impacts in the supply chain, no-one seems to be asking many questions of the hotel industry in this regard.

Is cotton the sustainability ‘elephant in the room’? Whatever the service level, cotton remains a common resource in any hotel. And it’s a massive industry; the largest money-making non-food crop produced in the world. Cotton production and processing provide some or all of the cash income of over 250 million people worldwide, and employ almost 7% of all labour in developing countries. Somewhat surprisingly, 90% of the production is on small-scale farms of less than two hectares. Unfortunately those fluffy little balls hide some not so soft secrets as cotton production globally has some very serious environmental and social impacts.

First of all the environmental; cotton is a thirsty plant. Cotton Connect estimates that the water needed to produce a t-shirt could be up to 2,600 litres. For one t-shirt! Cotton production in central Asia has virtually wiped out the Aral Sea which has been reduced by 85% of its former size on account of intensive cotton irrigation. Take out the water and you also take out biodiversity as only four out of 24 species of fish in the Aral Sea have escaped extinction.

Another issue is the excessive use of pesticides and insecticides in cotton production. Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year - accounting for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticides use worldwide. Pesticides are often used excessively due to poor training and techniques, leading to health problems, pollution of waterways, and soil degradation over time.

On the social side, there are also impacts. Look at agricultural production in many countries and you will find child labour and unpaid female labour. Bonded labour also exists in many countries. The most prevalent form is that of indebting an employee to a third party which exacts labour from the worker - such as a landlord or through local agencies, recruiters or ‘gangmasters’ - with unreasonable service fees which can be repaid only by continued work.

All this before we’ve even got beyond the fields into the many processes it takes to turn those fluffy balls of cotton into our hotel sheets and towels.

Though cotton is a major item in hotel procurement, it’s not surprising that few hoteliers have taken steps to investigate where their cotton is coming from and how they can improve the social and environmental impacts. Where to start?

Fortunately in the quest for more sustainable cotton there is help in the form of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

BCI exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing ‘Better Cotton’, a more sustainable alternative to conventionally grown cotton.

How does it work? BCI helps farmers to grow cotton in a way that is measurably better for and reduces stress on the local environment and improves the livelihoods and welfare of farming communities. It then creates a traceability system with chain of custody guidelines to ensure that the sourcing of ‘Better Cotton’ can be traced right through from farmers, ginners, traders, spinners, mills and cut & sew, to retailers and brands.

Procuring Better Cotton is not without its challenges. It is not a simple matter of being able to pick up a better product off the shelf, as BCI members - together with their suppliers - need to be able to trace their supply chain down to the stage of spinning in order to access Better Cotton. Challenging but it can be done and household names such as IKEA, adidas, Levi Strauss & Co., H&M, Marks & Spencer, Nike, and more who engage with BCI not only better their own sustainability efforts through their supply chains as a result, they also contribute towards bringing a third of the cotton market to a more sustainable footing. BCI’s goal is that by 2020, Better Cotton represents at least 30% of global cotton production. Better Cotton complements other cotton standards such as Organic and Fairtrade which also deliver clear environmental and social benefits. Better Cotton offers an encompassing and inclusive approach in terms of technology and methodology used by farmers.

From February 2014 BCI opened its membership to hotels, as well as catering, travel and other leisure service brands to help businesses source more sustainable cotton. The high prevalence of rented linens in the sector required a slightly different approach to membership. Lena Staafgard, BCI Business Director, says; “Our market-friendly approach is to encourage continuous improvement at a local level, and provide a system that will enable sector-wide improvement in the production of cotton. Better Cotton means better farming practices and market access for some of the most marginalised farmers in the world.”

To learn more about Better Cotton visit or contact Membership Manager Lilly Milligan Gilbert


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