Most companies using cotton do nearly nothing to improve environmental sustainability in their supply, according to a consortium of environmental groups. A report compiled by Rank a Brand, one of Europe’s largest brand-comparison sites on sustainability and corporate social responsibility, and in conjunction with World Wildlife Fund, Solidaridad and Pesticide Action network UK, reveals that 29 of the estimated 37 biggest cotton users scored in the red in a recent survey of policy, sourcing, use and traceability.

Entitled, Top Brands Failing on Cotton Sustainability, the report further holds that only 13 percent of cotton production can be classed as “more sustainable,” while less than a fifth of it is actually sold as more sustainable. The rest is sold as conventional cotton due to lack of demand. “Reasons for low uptake given by companies include low consumer demand, complexity of their supply chains and additional costs,” according to a statement from World Wildlife Fund, Solidaridad and Pesticide Action network. “Low uptake risks demotivating farmers and hindering lasting change in the textile sector.”


Interestingly, Swedish fast fashion giant, H&M, which is known for its poor manufacturing oversight, dirt-cheap textiles, rampant greenwashing initiatives, and its connection with repeated manufacturing tragedies, scores remarkably well on the Rank list, thereby raising questions as to the credibility of the list. H&M’s favorable placement, however, is almost certainly due to the fact that only publicly available information was used in scoring company performance, the environmental groups said.

As such, the information provided by companies, such as H&M, has room to be skewed in its favor to a very large extent. Also situated highly on the list: Ikea, the only company to fall within the “Leading the Way” category. This is followed by “On its Way,” a level occupied by H&M and adidas. Next up: “Starting the Journey,” which includes Kering (parent company to Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL, Bottega Veneta, and others) and Marks & Spencer. And ranking poorly, in the “Not Yet in the Starting Blocks” category” is Burberry, Macy’s, LVMH, Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing, Coach, Gap, Ralph Lauren and Richemont. 

It is also worth noting that Rank’s report also fails to address a core element in connection with the cotton industry: Child and forced labor. As we told you last month, most fashion brands – in attempts to offer affordable prices – look abroad for cotton, and the conditions in many of the far-flung locations where cotton is harvested are anything but pretty. Uzbekistan, for instance, an increasingly significant exporter of cotton, is making headlines for its consistent utilization of forced and child labor in connection with the harvesting of cotton.

According to Harvest Report 2015, a study that was recently published by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, an NGO promoting and protecting human rights, Uzbekistan plays a central role in the production of cotton on an international scale. In 2015 alone, the country produced 3.35 million tons of cotton, falling not so far behind India, the world’s biggest cotton producer, which is expected to export 6.8 million tons this year.

The shocking part is not the amount of exportable cotton coming out of Uzbekistan, as the country has steadily been climbing the list of largest producers/exporters of cotton, rebounding from a drop in demand in the 1990’s. Instead, the ugly truth comes by way of how the cotton is harvested and in particular, who harvests it. Imagine a mandatory military draft – of adults and children – except instead of going to war, you’re sent to pick cotton. That is how cotton has been procured for years, including 2015, in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan.

As such, it is worth bearing in mind that while Rank’s report sheds light on the environmental impacts of the cotton trade, there is another large element at play here (the labor associated with the procurement of cotton), which that report does not take into account, and it is one that would certainly situate the aforementioned brands quite differently if ranked accordingly.