/ ©: WWF-Pakistan

Better Cotton

Cotton farmers in Pakistan are increasing their income by reducing use of water and chemicals.
“Irrigation used to be weekly,” says Jam Sarfraz . “Now we observe the plants and the soil and only water when necessary.

We used to apply fertilizers at every irrigation, but now we go for regular Cotton Ecosystem Analysis and only apply fertilizer and pesticides if we need to. By reducing expenses farmers are now getting a good income.”

Jam is one of around 40,000 farmers in Pakistan growing a commodity which hit the market in 2010: Better Cotton. In your IKEA furnishings or Levi 501s, Better Cotton and conventional cotton look and feel identical – but on the ground, when they grow, they’re very different.

Creating Opportunity

Cotton is vital to Pakistan’s economy. It’s the world’s third largest cotton grower, and cotton and textiles make up 55 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings. But the way cotton is usually produced can have severe environmental impacts.

Vast amounts of water are sucked from rivers like the Indus to irrigate cotton fields. It can take more than 4,500 litres of water to grow a kilo of conventional cotton – enough for just one pair of jeans.

Falling water levels threaten freshwater ecosystems, millions of people and the future of the cotton industry itself. Threequarters of all pesticide use in Pakistan is down to cotton. This leads to river and groundwater pollution, and many people become ill or even die from pesticide or fertilizer poisoning.

In the Indus, falling water levels and pollution have caused numbers of the endangered Indus river dolphin to plummet to just 1,600. It’s part of a worrying worldwide trend: WWF’s Living Planet Report 2010 showed that populations of tropical freshwater species have fallen by 70 per cent since 1970.

In 2006, with support from IKEA, WWF began a pilot project to promote better ways of growing cotton. Due to its immediate success, the project evolved into a multistakeholder member-based organization called the Better Cotton Initiative. Through the initiative, Pakistani farmers reduced their use of water by 37 per cent, pesticides by 47 per cent and chemical fertilizer by 40 per cent across over 170,000 hectares by 2010. With yields just as good, and an average increase in income of 15 percent through reduced water and chemical use, working conditions and living standards have already improved in many communities.

Better Management Practices

Irrigating just the furrows instead of whole fields. Digging organic matter back into the soil. Applying natural pesticides when and where they’re needed, instead of spraying the whole crop – which kills beneficial insects as well as pests. Basic safety measures, like not entering a field for 24 hours after spraying.

Some of these are things that progressive farmers like Bilal Khan, Director of the Farmers Associates Pakistan – a BCI member – were already doing. WWF and industry partners worked with them and cotton scientists to help develop standards for growing Better Cotton, and to bring this knowledge to thousands of Pakistani cotton farmers. Most are very receptive, Bilal says.

“A good idea spreads like wildfire. Water is very expensive, especially if you’re pumping it with a diesel pump – so if you can use 30 per cent less that’s a huge saving,” says Bilal. “Some less ethical pesticide salespeople tell farmers that all bugs are enemies, so they’re happy to discover that some are friendly.”

Corporate Commitments

Bilal believes all cotton should become Better Cotton – and global demand can make that happen. WWF is working together with industry partners like IKEA, Levi’s, H&M, Adidas and Marks & Spencer – all BCI members – to increase both market demand and production.

“We’ve committed to using 100 per cent Better Cotton by 2015 and the likelihood of reaching that target is extremely high,” says Guido Verijke, the man in charge of IKEA’s global textiles business. “From our projects, we’re already creating more capacity than we need ourselves.”

The goal is to make Better Cotton a mainstream commodity – not an expensive niche product. “In the future, better cotton will be a precondition,” says Guido. “Sustainability won’t be something people will applaud – it will be something they expect.”

More examples of how transforming markets can make a difference can be found here. 

Better Production for a Living Planet

 / ©: WWF
The text on this page is an excerpt from the WWF Publication Better Production for a Living Planet (2012).


  • Cotton is the highest user of pesticides globally. Annually, across all agricultural sectors, about 20,000 deaths are associated with pesticide poisoning.
  • Cotton production can also be associated with child labour, debt bondage, soil degradation, agrochemical use, and high water use.


Cotton is used by nearly every consumer on the planet and accounts for at least 40% of all textiles.
  • The Better Cotton model can work as the mainstream solution for sustainability in the cotton sector globally.
  • Farmers who produce Better Cotton commit to achieving principles which support poverty alleviation and/or environmental protection.
  • By cutting the costs and reducing ‘inputs’ (agrochemicals and water), growing Better Cotton leaves farmers with greater profit.
  • Better soil quality and reduced water use from growing Better Cotton allows for growth of food crops.

The Better Cotton Initiative has a big vision – to change the way cotton is grown everywhere. Levi’s shares that vision.

We’re very appreciative of WWF’s pioneering work with cotton farmers in Pakistan, and support it financially and through our procurement practices. We’re very excited that better cotton will soon be finding its way into Levi’s jeans.

Michael Kobori, Vice-President, Social and Environmental Sustainability, Levi Strauss & Co

WWF Targets

2015: 1 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton grown; 50% purchased by Better Cotton Initiative members and 50% available for other buyers

2020: 25% of cotton produced for the global market meets Better Cotton Initiative principles and criteria


3.8%: of global cotton is Better Cotton (based on data available as of January 2014)
  •  / ©: BCI
    The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the sector’s future.


Priority Countries

  • Production
    China, India, USA, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan

    China, India, EU, USA

    Present focal regions
    India, Pakistan, West and Central Africa, Brazil

Better Cotton Production

  •  / ©: Jamie Pittock / WWF-Canon


  • Demand drivers
    Income, population, consumption\

    Future focus for success
    BCI will focus on Pakistan, India, Brazil, and West and Cetnral Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal and Togo). BCI will also support development of Better Cotton in China and Central Asia.

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