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Cotton is the most abundantly produced natural fibre and its production supports the livelihoods of over 350 million men and women. However, cotton production can present significant environmental and social challenges. Sourcing more sustainable cotton has the potential to lift millions of farmers out of poverty and reduce the commodity’s environment impacts. There are also clear benefits for businesses, such as increased transparency, long-term security of supply, minimising reputational risk and responsible brand positioning. Yet, even though the 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report shows that 75% of fashion companies have improved their environmental and social performance over the past year, uptake of more sustainable cotton from the industry is only around 3% of total global cotton supply, or 21% of sustainably produced cotton.

At M&S we have been making progress on our sustainable cotton journey, with 77% of our cotton now coming from more sustainable sources. However, many brands and retailers are just starting out on their cotton journey, and more generally, retailer uptake of sustainable cotton is still falling behind the amount produced. Globally, around 15% of all cotton is produced more sustainably, though only around 20% of that is actively sourced by retailers.

The CottonUP guide to sourcing sustainable cotton seeks to address one of the main barriers for companies looking to start sourcing or increase the amounts of sustainable cotton they source: the time and resource required to research and implement the most appropriate sourcing approach for their organisation’s sustainability priorities. Launched at this week’s BCI 2018 Global Cotton Conference, the guide highlights the business case and main sourcing options for sustainable cotton, provides guidance on creating a sourcing strategy and working with suppliers, and shares case studies from companies that have already navigated the complex challenges of sourcing more sustainable cotton.

The guide was developed by the Cotton 2040 coalition of leading brands and retailers including M&S; industry standards Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), organic standards (represented by Textile Exchange), Fairtrade, industry initiatives CottonConnect, IDH – the sustainable trade initiative, Cotton Australia, Proudly made in Africa and Organic Cotton Accelerator as well as MADE-BY and Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. Sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future led the work, with funding from the C&A Foundation. M&S shared the lessons we learnt from scaling up our sustainable cotton offer, in order to help other brands get started. Some key learnings included setting timebound targets, getting commitment from your CEO and mapping your supply chain.

The CottonUP guide will also be valuable to us here at M&S – especially for technologists, sourcing teams, buyers, designers, new starters – in fact anyone who is interested in learning more about cotton. The template for this guide could also be replicated to help mainstream other raw material initiatives e.g. leather, wool, viscose etc

Access the CottonUP guide at www.cottonupguide.org and register your details to access webinars and knowledge sharing opportunities, to support you take the key steps to sourcing sustainable cotton.