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Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre in the world and is essential for the manufacture of a wide variety of clothing and home products. The cotton plant provides seed for animal feed, while lint is converted into fibre. According to CottonConnect, cotton accounts for almost 40% of global textile production. It provides income for more than 250m people worldwide and employs 7% of all labour in developing countries. 

However, unless cotton is grown sustainably it leaves a significant environmental and social footprint. For example, it can take between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg cotton (depending on where it’s grown). Its cultivation can also be highly chemical intensive where the unsafe use of chemicals has the potential to cause severe health impacts on workers in the field and on surrounding ecosystems. While a number of initiatives have been developed to improve the sustainability of cotton production – total production of more sustainable cotton is still only estimated at about 15% of global production.  

Cotton is a very important raw material for M&S. Over the past decade we have been working to develop a practical approach to sourcing cotton more sustainably in order to help secure our access to this raw material in years to come as well as improving the lives of people and communities.

Commitments and targets
We want to lead our sector in sustainable consumption and production, offering our customers the good value, high quality products and they expect from M&S, while respecting planetary boundaries and the need for social equity.

Our goal is to ensure that 100% of the cotton for our clothing continues to be sustainably sourced - a goal we first met in March 2019. By 2025, we aim to have increased the proportion of Fairtrade, organic and recycled sources to 25%. 

Cotton is very important to M&S. Within our Clothing & Home business it is the largest raw material and on average we use around 50,000 tonnes of lint cotton each year, of that around 45,000 tonnes is used in our clothing. Our cotton fibre mainly comes from India, China, Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil, USA, Africa and Australia and our supply chain is complex. We don’t own farms or factories and don’t purchase raw materials directly. Most of the raw materials that go into our products are sourced in a global market and cotton is no exception. As a result, traceability is a real challenge, so it is hard for us to fully understand our supply chain beyond our direct supplier. This is compounded by the fact that we use less than 0.25% of the world’s annual production of cotton so our leverage or influence in the sector is minimal. Nonetheless we expect all parties in our supply chains to be progressively working towards sourcing more sustainable cotton. 

We have a proud history of sourcing cotton from more sustainable sources. We work with a wide range of multi-stakeholder and industry platforms to ensure our knowledge remains up to date in this rapidly evolving landscape. 

Over the last few years we have been evolving our approach to one which is both practical and reflects our size and influence in this industry. 

Our approach to sourcing more sustainable cotton is as follows:
Establishing and maintaining clear minimum sourcing standards
Sourcing More Sustainable Cotton
We’ve identified more sustainable sources of cotton as those which have been cultivated in such a way that meets at least one of following principles:

  • Reducing water use;
  • Reducing the dependency on pesticides and synthetic fertilisers;
  • Improving social conditions for farmers; and
  • Supporting the economic sustainability of farmers

We committed to source 100% of the cotton we use in M&S products from more sustainable sources, which we met in 2019. We define more sustainable sources as meeting any of the following standards:

Better Cotton Initiative The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) aims 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. BCI takes a mass-balance approach and end product ultimately may not physically contain BCI cotton. 
Fairtrade Certified Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. Premiums paid go to a communal fund for workers and farmers to use for the benefit of their farms and communities. Suppliers must follow the full chain of custody requirements for Fairtrade certification, including audits where necessary. 
Organic Cotton Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. Any product claiming organic status must meet our Organic Material Policy (e.g. meet legal standards for organic fibres and supported by correct documentation and certificates). A minimum of 50% of the product composition is required for Plan A Product Attribute purposes. 
Recycled Cotton Using reused or recycled cotton in lieu of virgin fibre can improve the sustainability performance of the product. We aspire to use post-consumer waste (e.g. used garments) but post industrial waste (mill waste and noils) are acceptable as an alternative.  A minimum of 25% of the product composition which meets our Recycled Textiles Policy (e.g. supported by certification to a recognised recycling standard – namely the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) or RCS Recycled Claim Standard) is required for Plan A Product Attribute purposes.  

These requirements are set out in our Cotton Sourcing Policy.

In March 2019, we achieved our goal of ensuring that 100% of the cotton for our clothing is sustainably sourced. This amounted to around 45,000 metric tonnes of more sustainable cotton lint. The majority of this was met by sourcing BCI cotton, with the remainder made up of organic, recycled cotton or Fairtrade. 

Products which meet any of the above criteria will be awarded a Plan A Product Attribute – an M&S credential that indicates a product is made in a way that is less damaging to society or the environment than conventional production methods. Find out more about our approach to product sustainability

Our suppliers are also required to meet the requirements set out in our Global Sourcing Principles. They are required to enforce these standards through their supply chain. Find out more about our approach to supplier management.

Prohibited Countries – Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan

As per our Responsible Cotton Sourcing Policy, we do not source cotton from the following countries or regions.

Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan

Because of  ongoing   concerns  regarding  the   use  of  government   backed  forced labour during the cotton-picking season, Marks & Spencer, in line with several other retailers,  have banned the use of both cotton fibre and fabrics from Uzbekistan (since 2008) and Turkmenistan (since 2016) and in all our products.

Xinjiang, China

Following the human rights abuses taking place in the Uyghur population in Western China, we were one of the first companies to formally sign the Call to Action on human rights abuses (Brand Commitment to Exit the Uyghur Region) and committed to ban Xinjiang cotton from its supply chain. This is in line with the company’s long-term focus on ensuring its supply chains are sustainable and ethical, where workers are treated fairly, and their human rights are respected. 

All our suppliers must declare the cotton country of origin to us, and we are working with our suppliers and partners to strengthen our due diligence processes. If a product is found to contain cotton originating from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Xinjiang, we reserve the right to cancel that order or return items to the supplier at their expense. 

These requirements are set out in our Cotton Sourcing Policy

Supporting market transformation through working with industry partners, standard setting organisations and other stakeholders
WWF Partnership
M&S has worked with WWF since 2004, initially on sustainable fishing and forestry initiatives, before launching our first partnership in 2007 to support Plan A. The final three-year partnership ran from 2014-2017 and focused on driving change in fish, cotton and water.

Between 2009 and 2017 we worked with WWF on a BCI project in India - the largest producer of cotton fibre in the world. In the 2010 cotton season, the project produced its first harvest of Better Cotton from cotton production areas of Warangal and Karimnagar districts (see below). In 2017 the project became self-sufficient but is still overseen by WWF as the implementing partner in partnership with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

In an effort to deepen understanding of cotton farming in the M&S supply chain, we published a report with WWF in 2013 on ‘Cutting Cotton Carbon Emissions’. This identified fertilisers as the major factor of greenhouse gas emissions in cotton cultivation and provided additional evidence to support better management practices over conventional cotton production systems. 

In addition, insights gained into more sustainable farming practices have seen M&S invest in the development of the Cool Farm tool, which enables growers and retailers to measure the potential for agricultural practices to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Given the success of the tool, WWF India has now adopted it and is applying the methodology to help substantially reduce the greenhouse gas impact of Indian agriculture. 

Better Cotton Initiative
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is about helping products adopt better management practices in growing cotton. The BCI is a not-for-profit organisation stewarding the global standards for Better Cotton, and bringing together cotton's complex supply chain, from the farmers to the retailers. 

BCI is a capacity building initiative which encourages the adoption of better management practices in cotton cultivation to achieve measurable reductions in key environmental impacts, while improving social and economic benefits for cotton farmers, small and large, worldwide. It is primarily focused on the following:

  • Demonstrating the inherent benefits of Better Cotton production, particularly the financial profitability for farmers;
  • Reducing the impact of water and pesticide use on human and environmental health;
  • Improving soil health and biodiversity building climate resilience in cotton producing regions;
  • Promoting decent working conditions for farming communities and cotton farm workers;
  • Facilitating global knowledge exchange on more sustainable cotton production; and
  • Increasing the traceability along the cotton supply chain.
M&S became a Pioneer Member of the BCI in 2009. We also currently hold one of the three seats on the BCI Council reserved for retail and brand member organisations. We are also currently Vice-Chair of the Council. The Council is an elected board whose role it is to ensure that BCI has a clear strategic direction and adequate policy to successfully fulfil its mission. 

We also sit on the Buyer and Investor Committee (BIC). The BIC is in charge of linking the demand and supply of Better Cotton and proposing new strategic investments to further increase the programme impact. The Retailer and Brand members in the committee share information about their sourcing regions to shape geographic priorities for the Fund. They also share the lessons learned on their approach towards successfully working with their supply chains on Better Cotton.

Our impact from sourcing Better Cotton: 

In 2020, M&S sourced 28,436,047 kg of cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative. This means that over that period:

  • An estimated 12.8 billion litres of water were saved
  • Over 8,290 kg of pesticides were avoided
  • BCI Farmers benefited from an estimated £5 million additional profit*

*BCI Farmers experience profit increases due to a variety of reasons, most commonly due to increased yields and/or optimized use of inputs (such as irrigation water, pesticides or synthetic fertilizer).

M&S is committed to BCI and the majority of our more sustainable cotton meets BCI standards (see above). 

Textile Exchange
The Textile Exchange is a global non-profit organisation which aims to make the textile industry more sustainable. They have developed several standards for the industry to support specific claims, such as on organic and recycled content.  

M&S has a long-standing relationship with Textile Exchange having become a member in 2004.

Supporting programmes which enhance the lives of people and communities
Better Cotton in India
WWF and M&S started working on sustainable cotton in India in 2009, supporting farmers in Warangal and Karimnagar districts to develop ways of producing cotton that use less water and fewer chemicals. In the 2010 cotton season, the project produced its first harvest of Better Cotton.

The project is supported by a number of local partners such as MARI (a leading NGO in India), that are helping to establish and strengthen farmer cooperatives and KVK (the Indian Council of Agricultural Research), the science and research centre who provide education and support to farmers to help improve their crop management. And of course all the field facilitators, cooperatives and the farmers themselves without whom the project would not be possible. 

The project passed its final exit phase in 2017, with the original goal for it to be self-sustaining. This will ensure all farmers involved receive the support they need from national cooperatives to establish farmer federations that will partner directly with the BCI.

As of 2017/18, 25,933 farmers are now certified as BCI Farmers, with net incomes approximately 38% higher than conventional cotton farmers, and around 40% less commercial fertiliser and 29% less water used. 

Together with WWF we’ve helped create an exemplar model of Better Cotton production in collaboration with an expert network of partners which has the potential to be scaled up. Find out more about our Global Community Programme.

A short film about the WWF and M&S Better Cotton Project can be viewed below:

Working with others
Listening, learning, responding and working in partnership is an important part of how we do business. 

We are working with a number of industry and civil society organisations to tackle many of the challenges faced in the cotton sector. Outlined in more detail above, these include the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Textile Exchange