Q&A With The Better Cotton Initative

When it comes to sustainable fashion, I love talking with environmentally-friendly designers and eco-editors. However, talking to Lena Staafgard, the Membership Coordinator of The Better Cotton Initiative, was a complete breath of fresh air (as well as a major learning experience). For those of you who haven’t heard about the BCI, it is a mission that strives to counteract the current impacts of cotton production worldwide. According to their website,

“BCI aims to promote measurable improvements in the key environmental and social impacts of cotton cultivation worldwide to make it more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.”

While this mission statement is beyond fabulous, I caught up with Lena to learn a little more. Check out our Q&A below!

1. First off, just tell me a little bit about how you started your work with The Better Cotton Initiative?

“Me personally? – I started just a few months ago as the membership coordinator. I have worked with business and sustainability for the past 7 years, out of London. ”

2. Could you sum up the BCI in a sentence or two?

“It’s a multi-stakeholder initiative set up to create positive change in the mainstream cotton production. The objectives are aimed at field level improvements and mechanisms for reaching them are to create both demand and support the creation of supply.”

3. How do you feel that the BCI can change the fashion industry?

“In two ways – through achieving our objectives we will transform the bulk of the global cotton cultivation and deliver a mainstream commodity with substantially lower impacts than is currently the case. Another objective of the organisation relates to supply chain transparency and the work and engagement we’re doing with various supply chain actors and the fact that our members increase their knowledge of the supply chain when they look to set it up to be able to buy Better Cotton. The cotton supply chain (and the fashion n supply chain as a whole) has traditionally been very difficult to understand and not so transparent. The more transparency we can create, the better set is the scene for higher degrees of accountability.”

4. What exactly has to happen for the BCI to work? In order to make cotton production better for everyone?

“We need strong industry and stakeholder support, we need the key players in the cotton sector and the key civil society organisations who work on sustainable agriculture and agricultural finance to join the initiative and help drive it forward.  We need to create the demand for Better Cotton and we need to ensure the system allows for the improved management practices to be implemented in a way that doesn’t add unnecessary costs to the supply chain. It could be argued that historic prices of cotton have been unsustainably low, moving forward, prices need to be at a sustainable level, but BC prices cannot run away from market price, since BC is designed to be traded as a conventional commodity. So many challenges still.”

5. Can you briefly explain the Better Cotton System and how it works?

“There’s quite a good document describing the System on our website. But basically it consists of a number of principles and criteria o which some form the minimum a farmer has to comply with to qualify as a BC farmer. To continue to be qualified farmers have to show continual improvement and have a plan in place for this improvement. BCI implementing partners (the organisations doing the farm level engagement) provide farmer groups with training, guidance and support. There is a verification system in place too. Small holder farmers are organised into learning groups, producer units and projects. We also work with large farm employers.”

6. Does the production of better cotton cost more money? Is it more expensive for designers to use better cotton? I would think so, because you are taking into consideration the farmer’s conditions, however I am not sure?

“There are some costs a certain stages of the supply chain. At farm level it should not be more costly. In fact, farmer margins and profitability should go up, as the management practices they are adopting should help them save on costly inputs (eg pesticides, fertilisers, water) and reduce levels of contamination (=potential for better price when selling). At gin-level there are some costs involved as we require segregation in order to create a 100% Better Cotton bale. After gin stage the BCI does no longer require segregation and tracking, but retailers may choose to implement it (if they want to communicate at point of sale that a specific line contains BC, they have to have a system in place to prove it). At this point in time there is no certification and no tags allowed on garments/items. This helps keep costs down in the supply chain. The idea is that it should not be more expensive for a designer to use Better Cotton.”

7. How much of a following does the BCI have? Has it grown a lot since it started in 2007? If so, by how much has it grown?

“The BCI was registered as an organisation in its own right in July 2009. On the 1st January 2010 we had 23 members. We now have 52, with 4 in application stage.”

8. On your website, one of the goals was to have a Better Cotton harvest by the end of this year. Do you think that goal will be met?

“We are harvesting already (India and Pakistan) and Better Cotton bales have been sold to manufacturers and are in the system. So, yes, we are meeting goal. ”

9. Do you think the BCI can ultimately change the fashion industry and make it so that one day all of the industry will be sustainable? I’m thinking, that maybe one day the phrase “sustainable fashion” will be redundant?

“Hopefully! I do believe the ambitions and the strategy are set to succeed in changing the industry. But as always with new ways of doing things, you have vested interests in current structures to deal with. So it’s not a walk in the park.”

10. What is next for the BCI? How do you plan on getting more people involved?

“Now that we have created the first volumes of supply we have a stronger footing for recruiting new members. We will increase our recruitment and communications efforts. But we still need to keep it at a manageable level 2010-2012 is the trial period, and we don’t want to expand too much in this time, as after 2012 the System may change in view of the review we are doing then of the first three years.”

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