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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership


How to secure sustainable supplies of cotton?

Dr Gemma Cranston, Senior Programme Manager,
Natural Capital Leaders Platform

19 November 2015

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting initial findings from a business-led project on natural capital challenges for cotton production at the World Textile Summit in Milan, Italy. It was a unique one-day event that brought together the world's most influential textile business leaders to debate issues of strategic importance to the global industry. There was much discussion about consumer-driven business responses, investor-led interventions and efficiency gains that were ripe for the picking. I was pleased also to hear speakers expressing frustration that business tends to focus solely upon water and energy use. I couldn’t have agreed more and marched the elephant in the room right on to the stage to share my thoughts, focusing upon the need to bring natural capital into decision-making processes.  Business is well positioned now to go beyond thinking about resource efficiencies in its direct operations and to consider the raw materials upon which it depends and the natural environment that supports the provision of these materials. 

At the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), we are running a project with a group of businesses on cotton; clearly an important commodity for the textile and apparel industries. To secure sustainable supplies of cotton, these industry leaders are considering natural capital – namely water, biodiversity and soil – at the very beginning of the supply chain where the cotton is grown. Cotton producers are dependent upon water resources for yield quantity; they need biodiversity to act as a control for pests; and good soil structure and fertility is needed to support growth. It is in the best interest of businesses dependent upon cotton in their supply chains to ensure that cotton production remains economically viable and that the quality and quantity of cotton in supply chains is not threatened. 

The challenge facing businesses around cotton is that there is not enough appropriate and consolidated evidence around best management practices for natural capital. We convened a group of leading businesses (including Asda, Kering and Olam International), experts and representatives from sustainable cotton initiatives (such as the Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Connect) to begin assessing the evidence for cotton-based management interventions on natural capital. By consolidating the evidence base for natural capital interventions and making it accessible to key decision-makers and influencers within cotton supply chains, more informed decisions can be made to support cotton’s sustainable future. The findings of this work will be available in Spring 2016. We are also planning a online tool that will help businesses determine the types of interventions that they should be discussing with their supply chains to secure the natural capital needed for a sustainable supply of cotton. It will represent a first step towards evidence-based decision-making for natural capital.

It is wonderful that the apparel industry is starting to engage on issues around natural capital. I’m very much looking forward to seeing more evidence of this and the discussions that will take place at the World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh on 23–24 November, not only on cotton, clothing and collaboration, but on many other sectors that impact and depend upon natural capital. This will be an opportunity for business leaders, government representatives and environmental experts from around the world to explore the strategic importance of natural capital.

I hope that the elephant I introduced in Milan will not be needed and we can instead lose ourselves in the opportunity to bring natural capital to the forefront of business strategies.

This article first appeared in The Environmentalist.



About the author

Dr Gemma Cranston

Gemma is Acting Director, Natural Resource Security Portfolio, bringing together influential companies with a global reach to address their dependencies and impacts on natural capital and enable companies to translate this into a tangible business context. With a Ph.D in Ecological Footprints, Gemma previously worked as the Lead Scientist at Global Footprint Network in Geneva.  


Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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