The latest traceability short-circuit: the Better Cotton case

The NGO Earthside has traced more than 800,000 tonnes of cotton certified by Better Cotton but allegedly produced in areas of Brazil where there have been incidents of land expropriation, violence, and corruption. This is not the first time that ‘the world’s leading sustainability initiative for cotton’ has come under fire


“Consumers should think twice before buying their next cotton garment“. This was said by Sam Lawson when commenting on the findings of the report entitled ‘Fashion crime: European retail giants linked to dirty cotton from Brazil’ published by the British NGO Earthside, of which he is the director. Where does this conviction come from? And how does it put to the test ‘the world’s leading sustainability initiative for cotton’? An ‘initiative’ that promotes itself by wishing that its ‘vision of a world’ should be ‘the norm’ so that ‘cotton farmers and their communities thrive’ through ‘a holistic approach and a rigorous standard to meet’. In other words, yet another green short-circuit is served. It is called Better Cotton.

The last short-circuit

If the cotton comes from China, there is the suspicion that it is the work of the Uighurs. If it comes from Brazil, it may be produced illegally, even if certified. Earthside has traced more than 800,000 tonnes of cotton certified by Better Cotton that was allegedly produced in areas of Brazil where there have been incidents of land expropriation, violence, and corruption. Better Cotton is simply the largest certifier of sustainable cotton. Companies such as LVMH, Inditex, H&M, Mango, and many others use the cotton it certifies, which constitutes 22% of world production. Neither H&M nor Inditex purchases cotton directly but buys their garments from Asian suppliers.

The Better Cotton Case

The reaction of the Inditex group, owner of brands such as Zara, Pull&Bear, Bershka, and others, to Better Cotton, was very firm. This company led by Marta Ortega sent a letter to Better Cotton CEO Alan McClay, asking for clarification on the certification process and the progress of traceability practices. Earthsight’s allegations ‘represent a serious breach of the trust placed in the Better Cotton certification process by both our group and our product suppliers,’ reads the letter seen by Modaes.

Absolute bullshit: pure greenwashing

This is not the first time that the work of Better Cotton has come under scrutiny, so much so that the organisation has also been accused of greenwashing. In 2017, the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, one of the pioneers of sustainable fashion, in an interview with Der Spiegel, went so far as to describe Better Cotton Initiative as ‘absolute bullshit: pure greenwashing‘. Perhaps also because, in Brazil, ABRAPA, the Brazilian Association of Cotton Producers, acts as the administrator of Better Cotton. But also because some Better Cotton-certified companies have since been accused of being involved in the recruitment and involuntary transfer of Uighurs from Xinjiang.

Not the first case

The affair involving Better Cotton is very similar to the one involving the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which was forced to suspend the Higg Index after consumer authorities in Norway and the Netherlands reported its ‘false and misleading and therefore illegal‘ use in marketing campaigns in June 2022. Higg Index changed its name, and it became Wordly. Idem SAC, which took the name Cascale to rinse its dirty laundry and regain its reputation. Will a rebranding suffice?

A reflection due

The Better Cotton case and that of the Higg Index expose various nuances of the same problem. In other words, to sensibly, truthfully, and reliably define the traceability of one’s supply chain. All too often, those who feel invested (or ‘self-invested’) with this responsibility construct and propose standards that, when all is said and done, are not authentic certifications (with all the rigorous system on which they are based and from which they derive), but projects that all too easily slip into greenwashing and are all too often controlled by those who should – in turn – control them. A short circuit. That of Better Cotton is, chronologically, the latest. At least for now. (mv)

Read also: