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Cotton and supply chains

At the Parallel Forum meeting in February 2015, one of the groups used the introductions given by the two expert witnesses as a starting point to discuss some of challenges facing cotton production and supply chains.

To develop sustainable cotton, a clearer picture of all aspects of production is essential to reduce impacts and increase the sustainability of the industry. To drive corporate change toward sustainable production, the benefits and opportunities for industry need to be developed. Companies need to define their vision of what is sustainable in terms of the cotton industry. Based on these principles and criteria, researchers can develop metrics and new methods. Current sustainable production is limited to a niche scale and large advances in all aspects are needed to scale up. While the cotton industry is well established, the methods of practice are not widely known and need to be evaluated and standardised within the system. With an evidence based argument, new standards of practice can be promoted and adopted.

Models for sustainable cotton should explore the multi-crop and crop rotation to optimise methods of production in terms of seeds, irrigation, chemicals, and land use. Additional areas of research include development of productivity predictions to explore the required inputs and ideal geographical locations for growth. Current leading producers include China, India and the United States, and there is a lack of understanding of how climate change may affect the yields in these regions.

To reduce risk and increased yield, a global trend is emerging to utilise genetically modified seeds, with the majority of cotton produced today being genetically modified. Further research and identification on the types of seeds used and their associated benefits should be conducted. Comparison of the current production methods available (conventional, GM, and organic) will provide the advantages and disadvantages, as well as serve to evaluate risk. The producer has limited profits and assumes all risk, representing the weakest part of the supply chain. Further understanding of the economics of the different types of production and the potential impacts of climate change are needed at both a small and large scale.

To evaluate the production process, transparency is needed, not only for accountability but also for researchers to effectively develop alternative solutions. Supply chain traceability would allow for evaluation of environmental and economic issues. Furthermore, the information collected would allow for development of certifications. Focused on risk, sustainability and profit, models will reveal critical nodes and where metrics can be applied. While it may be easier to account for some parameters and effects (i.e. resources, profit), social aspects may be harder to capture. One billion people rely on the cotton industry and small changes in the production have the potential to impact approximately one hundred million farmers and a quarter of a million workers. Modelling must also focus on the social and economic constraints that need to be considered while increasing the sustainability of the field. Increased transparency will also allow greater understanding of the natural capital costs. Water is the major input in cotton production and represents the highest cost in terms of natural capital. The consumption of resources is dependent on the end-product due to the differences in manufacturing and the efficiency of the process. A resource map would provide comparison of the utilisation of resources and indicate the efficiency of the different processes and associated impacts.

Cotton represents 40-45% of the EU textile market and the largest global consumer is China. While alternatives have been developed (i.e. rayon, viscose, Lyocell) the processing methods do not necessarily produce a more sustainable product in comparison to cotton. Demand is a complex topic and should investigate the types of applications or products, consumer awareness and behaviour. Consumer demand in driving the sustainability is increasing, however the scope is limited to specific groups and interests. In effort to achieve broader impact, the industry should focus on high street and develop commercial hooks that will drive sustainable cotton production. For example, the business case for sale of both organic and conventional cotton products, which provides the consumer with options. Additionally, extending the lifespan of cotton products would be a more effective use of resources, and could be reflected in increased cost rather than the cheaper but less durable model for products. Recycling of cotton products is a niche market. Challenges include the need for processing to address mixed materials, embedded pesticides and other chemicals. Furthermore, the processing results in shorter fibres which have limited applications. Development of new processing methods is necessary to develop a market for recycled material.

When she came to the Parallel Forum, Bhavna was a Senior Research Associate in the Natural Materials Innovation group in the Department of Architecture. She is now a Lecture in the Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering at the University of Bath where her research focuses on the use of sustainable construction materials in design and engineering.

Find out more about her work