Growing better cotton in Pakistan | WWF
	© 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 conduct water scouting and only water the cotton fields 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 a cotton farmer from Bahawalpur, one of around 120,000 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 fourth 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 almost 10.000 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. Three quarters 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 1,500. It’s part of a worrying worldwide trend: WWF’s Living Planet Report 2014 showed that populations of freshwater species have fallen by 76 per cent since 1970.

In 2005, with support from IKEA and other companies, WWF began a pilot project to promote better ways of growing cotton. Over the following years, the project evolved into a multistakeholder member-based organisation called the Better Cotton Initiative. Through the initiative, Pakistani farmers reduced their use of water by 20 per cent, pesticides by 18 per cent and chemical fertilizer by 19 per cent across over 128,000 hectares by 2014. With yields just as good or better, and an average increase in income of 29 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. Putting 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 Association of 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 have been 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, Adidas and Marks & Spencer – all BCI members – to increase both market demand and production.

On 1 September 2015, IKEA secured enough cotton from more sustainable sources to cover 100 per cent of the company´s needs.
“It’s exciting to have achieved our 100% milestone. But this is only part of a longer journey to transform the global cotton market. We want cotton to become more sustainable worldwide – not just for our business. Our vision is to make more sustainable cotton affordable and accessible – also better for the people who grow it - and better for the environment," says Pramod Singh, Cotton Leader at IKEA.

Better Production for a Living Planet

Download the full story here. 


  • 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 BCI demonstrates that 'sustainable' doesn´t need not be 'niche' but can very well become 'mainstream'. 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. And excited that better cotton has found its way into Levi’s jeans."

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

    China, India, EU, USA

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

WWF targets

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


  • 12,5% of global cotton is from Better Cotton Initiative/Organic (August 2016)

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