Why cotton matters
H&M, the world's biggest user of organic cotton, explains the importance of "Conscious" cotton, as well as their vision for a more sustainable fashion future.
It takes an average of 8,500 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make one pair of jeans, according to WWF research. Cotton is one of the most used materials by clothing retailers, so it’s imperative they identify and utilize sustainable versions of the textile, and that consumers demonstrate their support by making smart shopping decisions.
When you buy an organic cotton t-shirt, you’re saying that you don’t want those pesticides added to the environment (or rubbing against your skin).
Organic cotton is grown “‘in a way that doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,” explains Libby Bernick, senior vice president of Trucost. “There is a lot of concern in the scientific community about the safety of some of these synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the health of the workers and questions about what happens to the materials when they run off into the waterways and streams,” she says.
In 2011, for the second consecutive year H&M was the biggest user of organic cotton worldwide, according to Textile Exchange´s latest Global Sustainable Textiles Market Report.
“H&M’s ambitious program continues to drive demand for organic cotton and other more sustainable fibers,” says LaRhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange. “This supports farmers, encourages innovation and with its fashion forward Conscious Collections, H&M lifts more sustainable fashion to scale. This strategic work serves as a model for adopting and expanding the use of greener materials in the fashion industry.”
H&M's efforts to increase use of organic cotton are part of their strategic goal to use only cotton from more sustainable sources by 2020, and is part of their all-encompassing philosophy called “conscious.” To H&M, conscious means running every aspect of its business in a way that is “economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.”
H&M also uses recycled cotton from textile remnants and “Better Cotton,” as deemed by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). BCI works with stakeholders, including NGOs and retailers, dedicated to improving the global production of cotton—for the environment, but also for the safety and livelihood of the farming communities that depend on the crop. H&M is an elected member of the organization’s council.
“We plan to further increase our use of organic cotton in the future, besides making strong investments in Better Cotton and gradually increasing our use of recycled cotton,” says Henrik Lampa, product sustainability manager at H&M. “Cotton is the raw material we use the most and our good progress against our goal means major improvements for people and the environment in cotton-producing communities.”
A more sustainable fashion future
For retailers concerned with the sustainability of their practices, Bernick suggests screening their supply chain to understand where their biggest impact lies, and in turn the most potential for improvements, as H&M has done. Trucost is a research-based firm that helps companies, governments, academics and other entities understand the economic consequences of natural capital dependency. “For a retailer looking to get started, we would advise them to look for hot spots in the supply chain and understand which of their suppliers and which of their products are creating their greatest risk.”
“We plan to further increase our use of organic cotton in the future, besides making strong investments in Better Cotton and gradually increasing our use of recycled cotton.”
Trucost helped Puma develop an environmental P&L statement to identify and compare the environmental impacts of more sustainable products compared to conventional ones. “Through that process, one of the things they identified is the importance of 100 percent organic cotton,” notes Bernick.
But H&M President Karl-Johan Persson thinks this is just the start. “To build a more sustainable fashion future, our industry needs to keep finding new ways of using resources as responsibly and efficiently as possible,” he says.
Consumers, too, have an important role to play. When you buy an organic cotton t-shirt, you’re saying that you don’t want those pesticides added to the environment (or rubbing against your skin). So this holiday shopping season, check your labels and make purchasing decisions that show you’re conscious about more than just fashion—you care about the future of our earth.