Defining Sustainability In A Global Landscape
Leaders in the global cotton industry work to correct retail and consumer misconceptions of cotton's sustainability.
March 17, 2009
Sustainability is a concept that will impact all facets of the cotton supply chain in future years – from sustainable production techniques to “green” marketing campaigns by textile retailers. At its heart, sustainability examines how business practices and products affect humanity, both now and into the future. Stewardship of natural resources, profitability and working conditions are just some of the issues that sustainability addresses.
Sustainability – in some form or fashion – has been the over-arching issue for global cotton for some time. When WTO discussions focus on raising cotton prices in West Africa, they really are talking about making cotton sustainable. When researchers look for ways to increase production per acre with fewer inputs, they are searching for sustainable production techniques.
In the past six months, sustainability was a major topic at two of the cotton industry’s most salient meetings – the International Cotton Advisory Council Plenary Meeting and the U.S. National Cotton Council Beltwide Conferences. The ICAC meeting, entitled “The Social and Environmental Impacts of Cotton Production and Use,” focused extensively on the subject, as did several key speakers at the Beltwide Conferences. While almost every link along cotton’s supply chain agrees that sustainability is one of the most pressing issues for the industry, there is contention as to what sustainability really means.
The definition of sustainability in the cotton industry is often opaque, leading to misconceptions in both the business and public arenas. For those on the “green” end of the spectrum, sustainability means eliminating most pesticides and chemical inputs, and switching to organic production. For those who look at the global cotton industry from a macro-economic view, sustainability is a more complex issue, working to meet global commodity demand while improving life for current and future generations. At the 2007 Beltwide Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, Cotton Incorporated CEO and President Berrye Worsham delivered a presentation on the sustainability of cotton. Worsham sided with the all-encompassing view of sustainability, defining it as the convergence of three key elements.
“What is sustainable production? We have to satisfy today’s demand as well as the future’s demand for food and fiber. We must maintain environmental quality and our resource base and it must be economically viable,” Worsham said. “In other words, it is what comes closest to the intersection of environment, quality of life and economics. It is a continuum.”
Confusion on the Retail Front
But everyone doesn’t agree. For many grassroots, environmental organizations, sustainability means going organic – an option that seems impossible given the global demand for cotton. Organically grown cotton accounts for 0.2% of the entire world production; last year’s entire world organic cotton crop would fit in a medium-sized cargo container. On average, organic cotton also has lower yields per acre. To keep up with global demand, more acres would need to be planted, usurping the greatest natural resource – land. Despite the pitfalls of organic production, some retailers are defining sustainability along these lines as well.
In 2005, global retail giant Wal-Mart announced a major campaign to make their operations more environmentally friendly and sustainable. But Wal-Mart’s endeavors in sustainability are mostly defined in organic terms. On its corporate Web site under the headline “Sustainable Products,” Wal-Mart sites organic cotton apparel as a sustainable alternative. The company says that it is the largest user of organic cotton in the world, but the organic cotton Wal-Mart has purchased would supply the entire population of New York City with approximately one garment. Considering there are approximately 6.5 billion people on the planet, those efforts are far from sustainable. At best, organic cotton is a niche market, not a feasible definition of sustainable cotton.
Dean O. Cliver, professor at the University of California-Davis, summed it up this way in a recent letter to the editor in Smithsonian. “Regressive technology, including organic farming, can only make things worse. In affluent countries … organic farming strikes me as elitist.”
On a broad scale, organic farming is not only elitist, but also impractical. In a global economy and infrastructure, sustainable cotton must meet the needs of entire populations; that aspect of sustainability combined with environmental concerns and profitability for those in the cotton industry paints a more comprehensive picture of sustainability. But that message must spread all along the cotton supply chain, especially to the consumer level, to correct these misconceptions.
“Cotton has been attacked on a number of fronts – environmental, trade, subsidies, etc.,” Worsham said at the 2007 Beltwide Conference. “Many brands and retailers are starting sustainable or environmental programs based on inaccurate information about cotton. If we don’t correct what’s out there, the myths will become fact by default.”