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Published on Friday, 15 April 2016

Cotton Inc joins debate on cotton sustainability

Written by Brett Mathews

Cotton flower fields –© thelefty deposit photos

NORTH CAROLINA - US cotton research and promotion organisation, Cotton Inc, has shared with Ecotextile News its views on the current debate around sustainability in the cotton industry following the recent publication of a report which claimed that more than fourth fifths of identity cottons – such as BCI and organic – are being sold on the conventional market.

The report, commissioned by Pesticides Action Network (PAN) UK, Solidaridad and WWF, holds up four identity cotton programmes – Fairtrade, BCI, Organic and CmiA – as being sustainable, and suggests there is a significant gap between the production of these cottons and uptake by retailers and apparel brands.

However, Cotton Inc has expressed concern that the report "narrowly defines sustainable cotton as being cotton produced only through these four programs," and – by definition – casts cotton grown outside these programmes in a less than favourable light.

James Pruden, senior director, public relations, told us: "The [report's] claim that conventional cotton, in toto, requires large amounts of water and pesticides is simultaneously vague and inaccurate. The exaggeration of cotton's water use has been disproved time and again, and notably refuted in the MCL publication Cotton Horizons."

Pruden suggests that, "acknowledging the gains made by conventional cotton growers in some regions would have been nice, not to mention comprehensive." He adds: "However, our main concern is not with the emphasis on the programs promoted in the report, or even the wilful ignorance of gains made by conventional growers in developed countries like Australia and the United States. The issue is two-fold: firstly, the report proclaims to the supply chain what sustainable cotton is and what it is not - something that not even the Federal Trade Commission in the US or, to the best of my knowledge, the ASA in the UK have attempted; and secondly, it promotes four programs by denigrating any other option. Using the totality of conventional cotton as a negative benchmark does not elevate these programs in any way; particularly when the negative claims are either overstated or under-researched. What documents like this do quite well, unfortunately, is cast a cloud over all cotton."

Asked generally about the sustainability of US-grown, conventional cotton, Pruden told us: "If you are asking if US cotton is responsibly produced, then the answer is yes. A distinguishing characteristic of cotton production in the US is a longstanding and robust infrastructure of strict federal regulation, nationwide education, and detailed reporting. For example, no one can apply pesticide to a US cotton field without a license; the license is only granted upon the successful completion of course in proper handling and application.

"A hallmark of cotton production in the US is copious record keeping. Each time an input such as fertiliser or pesticide is applied to a field, it is recorded into a log that lists when, what, where and how much was applied.

"Not every cotton-growing country has a country-wide infrastructure like the US and Australia. For cotton growers such as these, the programs cited in the report provide a means of making their cotton more viable to cotton businesses. These programs vary in their criteria, but are guided by the same basic elements as conventional cotton grown in countries like the United States and Australia: the encouragement of responsible production practices, traceability, and demonstrated improvement."


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