Going soft on cotton
Sustainable cotton production that covers all three pillars of sustainability is at the heart of Woolworths’ business ethic
One of the most engaging economic books you’re ever likely to read is The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. It tells the story of the central role played by cotton in economic growth across the centuries and across the globe.
As author Pietra Rivoli points out, the world’s first factories were cotton textile factories. A powerful cotton industry has been a seemingly essential part of becoming a powerful economic state, from 18th century Britain to 19th century US and, most recently, late 20th century China. The book, published in 2009, focuses on the economic and political response to China’s dominance of the global industry.
Remarkably, it pays little attention to the environmental impact of cotton. Rivoli provides a chilling description of part of the harvesting process used in the US, the third-largest producer after China and India. “When the cotton is open . . . he freezes the cotton with chemicals sprayed from behind his tractor. The plants turn as dead and crunchy as can be, whenever he wants them to. In fact, there isn’t much that looks deader than a defoliated cotton field in west Texas. When I stood in the middle of the Reinsches’ chemically frozen field, I felt like the earth itself was rusting away around me.”
None of this would have come as a surprise to Hugo Lemon, product technologist at Woolworths and an expert on cotton, who believes it is the environmental impact, rather than anti-globalisation protests and multilateral trade agreements, that will curtail China’s dominance of this industry.
“They can’t afford the water or the environmental damage. They actu ally never could but they’ve become increasingly aware of that.” Essentially, China’s environment has been subsidising the world’s consumption of cotton garments, says Lemon.
The Good Business Journey team was tasked in 2007 with ensuring that by around 2012 all the group’s cotton would be organic. “That was quite ambitious. We realised that we couldn’t make that target. We were naïve and it proved to be quite painful, we needed to change our approach.
“We didn’t know how big our cotton footprint was and we didn’t understand the dynamic between organic and conventional cotton farming, we were spending an inordinate amount of time on the farms trying to understand and manage the process,” says Lemon.
That has all changed, and now Lemon, a textile engineer, has at his fingertips the details of how much water, land and energy is consumed by various cotton producers around the world. He can even compare water and energy use of different textiles over the life of a product. Polyester does surprisingly well because it is now mostly made from recycled plastic bottles and is easy to wash and dry. Despite the fact that it’s made from sustainably grown wood pulp, Lemon cautions on the limits to using FSC viscose, “There’s only so much wood you should be chopping down.”
Though they struggled with the organic cotton ambitions, Lemon and his team remained committed to weaning the group off conventional cotton because of its devastating impact on the environment.
Far from being pure and natural, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet. It was this reality that drove former Woolworths CEO Simon Susman’s commitment. According to Organic Authority, a US digital publication on healthy lifestyle, though cotton covers only 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, it accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide market and 11% of global pesticide sales. It not only consumes huge amounts of water, it poisons even more through pesticide run-off. And that’s all before the cotton makes it to the factory floor, where more environmental damage is wreaked.
Woolworths struggled with its cotton challenge until it met with Swiss-based BCI, which adopts a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production, covering all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic.
Woolworths joined BCI in 2014 and easily exceeded the initial goal of converting 15% of its cotton to BCI by 2017.
“We’ve converted about 30% of our total annual cotton fibre tonnage to sustainably sourced,” says Lemon, adding that the group is now one-third of the way to attaining its 2020 target of 100% sustainable (including organic) cotton. It’s also been important that consumers did not have to pay high prices for the sustainable cotton.
Progress to date has relied on close collaboration not only with BCI but with suppliers and factories in Southern Africa and across the globe. One of their supplier partners is Prilla 2000, which owns the largest independent spinning mill in SA, and joined BCI in 2015 in response to demand from retailers like Woolworths. These partnerships help with local job creation and import substitution.
The challenge doesn’t end at the shop floor. Lemon says consumers must not only play a role in supporting Bci-based products over conventional ones, they have to consider how they maintain the garment. This essentially means lowering the temperature of washing water and using a clothes line rather than a clothes dryer.