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.

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