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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership


Going beyond our stores: tackling natural capital challenges

To be economically viable, the cotton industry must safeguard the natural resources upon which it depends, writes Andy Clarke, President and CEO of Asda Stores Ltd. He argues that clothing retailers have a crucial role to play in securing a sustainable base of raw materials.

11 February 2016

As one of Britain’s major clothing retailers, Asda has a responsibility to develop environmental sustainability strategies that spearhead the industry. While we have substantially improved our environmental performance within our operations, especially with regards to energy and waste, we are now turning our attention further afield and are aiming to go beyond our stores. This means working with all those impacted by and dependent on cotton’s natural capital to secure a sustainable base of raw materials.
Today’s supermarket world is both challenging and compromised. Economic sustainability is a top priority for us. We cannot envisage being economically viable without considering the natural capital upon which our products depend: focusing on nature is vital to securing long-term financial capital.

We see business success going hand in glove with sustainability for the benefit of our customers and of our business. We pride ourselves in customer loyalty and we want our customers to be able to access not only low prices and good quality but also sustainable products.
At Asda, we source an incredible number and variety of products, including cotton. Mapping complex cotton supply chains and exploring where our cotton comes from enables us to appreciate the environmental impacts at the growing phase. Understanding and transparency are only the first steps to action; engaging in healthy and informed conversations with other stakeholders within our supply chains is the only way the cotton industry will collaboratively see action.

This is no small task but the last nine months have seen a great deal of positive ambition with the Cotton Action Research Collaboratory developed by the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL)’s Natural Capital Leaders Platform, of which Asda is a member. The work brought together a host of industry players, including ourselves at Asda, Bayer, Cargill, C&A, Kering, Olam International and Value Retail as well as cotton initiatives and experts.

Our unique collaboration illustrates that, through conscious, collective and evidence-based efforts to enhance natural resource dependencies, the industry will be able to deliver secure, sustainable supplies of cotton. This important finding is summarised in the ‘Threading natural capital into cotton: doing business with nature’ report and complemented by a robust technical report which analyses scientific evidence.

The work has culminated in a cotton tool that empowers users with some in-depth knowledge of about 15 different cotton management interventions, including practices such as deficit irrigation and crop rotation. The cotton tool highlights the scientific evidence that points to the positive or negative impacts of these practices upon natural capital. As retailers, we are not always familiar with impacts on the ground and having a scientifically evidenced indication of how different management interventions affect natural capital, such as soil, water and biodiversity, is immensely valuable for us to kick start informed conversations with our supply chain partners.

Asda is determined to lead the industry to change its practices to better protect the natural capital we depend upon. But we can’t do it alone. In order to generate momentum, we need the support and involvement of all other industry players. We also need to be equipped with the appropriate science and knowledge. Our work with CISL on cotton has done just that and we hope that by being part of this journey, we will pave the way for concrete action in the future.

About the author

Andy ClarkeAndy Clarke is the president and CEO of Asda Stores, Ltd., Walmart's retail operation in the United Kingdom. Andy has worked in a variety of roles since joining Asda in 1992, including store manager, followed by key roles in trading (merchandising) and then operations. He became Asda’s retail director in 2005 and chief operating officer in 2007.

Asda is a Strategic Partner of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). It is also a member of the Natural Capital Leaders Platform, hosted by CISL.


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.



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