Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a non-profit organization advocating for planting cotton in a sustainable way. From its establishment in 2009, in Geneva, Switzerland, BCI set out to eliminate unsustainable and self-destructive methods of cotton planting on a global scale.
It combined this goal with a vision of better occupational environments for farmers in cotton-growing countries, empowerment for working women in the field, and the end of child labor.
In this article written by Shufen Lee, you will learn how the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) works and how brands can source BCI certified fabrics.
What is BCI?
BCI, as said, is a non-profit organization and is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world. It is a joint effort, working together with organizations from farms to suppliers, manufacturers, and brands in order to transform cotton production worldwide.
Through BCI and its members, farmers receive training on how to use water efficiently, care for the health of the soil and natural habitats, reduce the use of the most harmful chemicals and apply decent work principles.
As a result, these farmers gain economic support through BCI members who have committed to these shared values by incorporating Better Cotton in their supply chains.
What about Conventional cotton?
Cotton is the most common fiber used in textile with a market share of around 24.5% of the total fiber market in 2016/2017 (Textile Exchange (2018): Preferred Fiber Materials Market Report).
Although cotton is a natural fiber, the production of conventional cotton is highly unsustainable.
The production of cotton uses a lot of water and pesticides, and it is often produced in countries where clean water is not accessible. According to World Wild Life, it takes about 2,700 liters of water just to produce a cotton t-shirt and in fact, 70% of all the water used globally is dedicated to agriculture. This high level of water consumption is not very environmentally sustainable.
One of the most extreme cases was observed in Uzbekistan where the Aral Sea, which was once the world’s fourth-largest lake, has nearly dried up. This is mainly linked to the cotton production as the water from the lake is used to irrigate the surrounding agricultural area.
Furthermore, most cotton farmers have the mindset of applying excess chemical fertilizers and pesticides to get more crops. Today, cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide release, more than any other single crop.
Many cotton farmers in developing countries such as India are working in a highly unsafe occupational environment where protective measures and equipment for the safe handling and spraying of pesticides are not being adopted. Direct exposure of pesticides can cause breathlessness, muscle tremors, loss of consciousness, seizures and even death.
This practice of adding chemical pesticides degrades soil health in the long term. When soil health degrades, it has less ability to hold onto water and retain nutrients, which means that more water is needed. This is not helpful for long-term sustainable food and fiber supply.
In short, the largely water-intensive nature of the cotton crop and extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides has posed a significant environmental challenge as far as cotton cultivation is concerned.
How exactly do the BCI benefit farmers and the environment?
The increased uptake of Better Cotton leads directly to increased investment in farmer training, better work environment, and biodiversity.
This movement changes the life of BCI farmers and their communities. Here are few examples of how producing Better Cotton has real economic, social and environmental benefits.
BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar from Gujarat
BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar formed the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation (SFPO), which helps BCI farmers save costs collectively by helping them obtain safer products instead of going to the local pesticide dealers.
These dealers are known to push the farmers to buy synthetic products for their own commercial gain. Knowledge centers have been set up to train farmers on how to use pesticides efficiently, encourage bio-pesticides and introduce methods to improve soil fertility.
Members also receive training on how to trade through India’s Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX) online training platform. This has helped farmers discover prices that are favorable for them, rather than having to rely on prices that are fixed by local cotton gins and traders.
BCI Farmer Jam Muhammad Saleem from Pakistan’s Punjab province
Through BCI training, he learned sustainable farming methods, which led him to be more self-sufficient despite facing severe climate and water shortages. After his first Better Cotton harvest in 2018, Saleem doubled his yield while saving costs.
He no longer depended on his 12-year-old son, Umar, even though it is common among smallholder cotton farmers to rely on their families to help in the fields. As he gained awareness about the importance of children’s education and the danger of children working in the fields, he sent his son back to school.
Umar’s enthusiasm for learning has prompted several other families in the village to reconsider their position regarding sending their children to school. Thus, the BCI program helped to influence other farmers to overcome these entrenched attitudes of having child labor in the fields.
BCI Tata Djire in Mali
BCI Tata Djire supported female farmers by training them on efficient harvesting techniques, raising awareness of the importance of equal pay and leadership training. This has given rise to the emergence of women leaders capable of promoting the interests of women in the cotton sector.
Through Better Cotton training and support, BCI Farmers produce cotton in a way that is measurably better for people, the environment and farming communities. This is seen in the 2017-18 farmer results, which provides an overview of the outcomes measured using the environmental, economic and social indicators.
What is the difference between organic cotton and BCI cotton?
Organic cotton is harvested without the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds, pesticides, insecticides or other harmful chemicals.
BCI Farmers can still use GM seeds when growing cotton. In fact, BCI does not encourage nor discourage BCI farmers with respect to GM cotton as BCI aims to be a mainstream initiative with cotton farming.
Since nearly three-quarters of the world’s cotton is grown with GM seeds, it would be challenging to achieve its objective of making Better Cotton a mainstream sustainable initiative if GM seeds were forbidden. Consequently, this would automatically exclude majority farmers from its training and support.
What is the Better Cotton Chain of Custody model?
Trading of Better Cotton and Better Cotton products among different parties are done within the Better Cotton Platform (BCP)
Between the farm and the gin, BCI requires a product segregation chain of custody model. This means that farmers and gins need to store, transport and process Better Cotton separately from any conventional cotton.
After the gin level, BCI requires a mass balance chain of custody model. Mass balance is a volume tracking system that allows Better Cotton to be substituted or mixed with conventional cotton.
The Better Cotton Claim Units (BCCUs) is used within BCP as a designated unit to track the volumes of physical cotton associated with a Better Cotton claim. One BCCU represents one kg of physical Better Cotton lint procured from gin by a merchant/spinning mill. Transfers of BCCUs between parties occur whenever any purchases or sales are made through the BCP.
Note that after the gin level, the mass balance system does not require that the BCCUs remain associated with the original physical Better Cotton from licensed BCI farmers.
This means that cotton products sold within Better Cotton Platform (also known as Better Cotton Products) with a Better Cotton Claim may not necessarily contain any of the original Better Cotton from licensed BCI farmers.
Who can source cotton through BCI?
If you are an importer, eCommerce brand or retailers and you buy cotton fabric from a BCI fabric supplier, you cannot claim that you source cotton through BCI unless you are a member of BCI.
This means that there are few more steps to consider such as determining your membership fees and total cotton usage before you are able to do that.
All trading is done within the Better Cotton Platform (BCP). Depending on what your roles are in the supply chain, you may or may not need membership in order to gain access to BCP.
How do I verify that the final product has Better Cotton?
No finished product can be claimed to be made with Better Cotton.
Unlike other sustainable cotton standards such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Organic Content Standard (OCS), the mass balance model does not focus on the physical traceability of Better Cotton along the entire supply chain.
Rather, the BCI focuses on the members’ commitment to responsibly sourced cotton, and not the content of the product itself.
Therefore, many retailers would normally say that a certain percentage of their cotton is sustainably sourced through BCI instead of stating that specific products are more sustainable because they contain Better Cotton.
The important thing is that, from a sustainability perspective, the interest of the farmers and the local environment are taken care of as a result of improvements taking place in the cotton fields.
Does BCI recognize other sustainable cotton standards?
Currently, BCI recognizes three other standards as equivalent to the Better Cotton Standard. These standards are Cotton Made in Africa (CmiA), MyBMP (Australia) and ABRAPA (Brazil).
Farmers growing cotton in line with these three standards can also sell their cotton as Better Cotton. BCI supports farmers having the ability to choose which farming system is the best for them, thereby eliminating duplication and inefficiencies in the market.
What is the current market share of BCI?
The Textile Exchange (a global non-profit that works to drive industry change towards responsible fibers and production) published the 2018 Preferred Fibers and Materials Market Report to quantify the production and usage of fiber and materials with improved social and environmental impacts.
According to the report, the market share of preferred virgin cotton increased from 6% of the total cotton production in 2012/13 to 19% in 2016/17.
The preferred virgin cotton includes cotton under BCI and its equivalent standards, REEL, Cleaner Cotton, e3, organic and Fair Trade cotton.
Of the 19% market share of total cotton production in 2016/17, the BCI standard without equivalents made up about 47% of all preferred virgin cotton. All BCI cotton, including its equivalents, made up around 87% of all preferred virgin cotton.
The market share of preferred virgin cotton will likely increase substantially in the future as many big retailers such as H&M, Levi’s, Eileen Fisher and Stella McCartney aim to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2020. 38 major brands have also pledged to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025.
What are the other sustainable cotton alternatives?
1. Recycled cotton
Recycling is an important approach, which addresses the increasing textile waste in landfills as well as saves resources. Just keep in mind that the recycled cotton fiber is usually shorter than virgin cotton, and is therefore usually combined with other materials such as virgin cotton, polyester or viscose to make new yarn. It is currently uncommon to see 100% recycled cotton in any product.
2. Organic cotton
Organic cotton does not contain harmful chemicals and GMOs. The challenges faced with sourcing organic cotton is that it is hard to verify that the fabric is actually organic. If fabric suppliers have third party certification in place to verify the content (such as GOTS), you can be quite sure that the claim is accurate.
3. Cotton complying with sustainability standards other than BCI
Sustainability does not just mean that the fabrics are eco-friendly but also implies that both environmental and socio-economic aspects are taken into account throughout the whole supply chain.
Cotton standards that ensure sustainability at the farming stage are REEL, Cleaner cotton, e3, and Fairtrade cotton. These standards ensure sustainable farming practices are being followed along with decent working conditions for cotton farmers and the protection of biodiversity.
If the physical traceability of sustainable cotton is a requirement, GOTS and OE-100 may be a better option for you.
Standards that have guidelines that are more pertinent to the latter stages of the supply chain (i.e processing and manufacturing), for example, Oeko-Tex and Bluesign, have strict guidelines regarding treatments and chemical substances found in the textile product.
Shufen Lee has been residing in Toronto since 2007 and holds a BMath at the University of Waterloo.
She is currently an independent research collaborator with Asiaimportal (HK) Limited.