Benchmarking of Sustainability Standards used in Cotton Production

Posted on 05 June 2023

Helping standard users better understand the strengths and weaknesses of select cotton standards in covering specific sustainability issues
WWF conducted a benchmarking exercise in 2022 to better understand the strengths and limitations in coverage of key sustainability issues by six important standards used in cotton production.

The standards benchmarked in this exercise are: Better Cotton Initiative (Small, Medium and Large Farm criteria), Cotton Made in Africa, FairTrade International Small Producer Organization Standard with Fiber Crop Criteria, USDA National Organic Program, EU Organic Program, and India National Program for Organic Production. Other standards applicable to cotton production exist, but were not in scope of this exercise.

The objective of sharing these results is not to assess or make a judgment about which standards are better or worse, “more sustainable” or “less sustainable” – such conclusions are impossible from this exercise - but rather to provide users of standards with a more nuanced understanding of their utility as tools in addressing sustainability issues.

The following are some overarching conclusions that have come from the exercise:
  • No standard is perfect. Standards cover certain benchmark criteria well and not others. In other words, not one of the standards benchmarked covered all the sustainability criteria that were selected for this exercise.
  • There’s always room for improvement. Even where a standard has good coverage of a sustainability issue, there was always room to strengthen the criteria.
  • Different standards focus on / address different needs and issues: Standards differ from one another in sustainability issues that they cover; some standards cover some sustainability issues better and worse than other standards.
  • Good coverage of a sustainability issue is not everything. The quality of implementation matters a great deal.
Some implications of the conclusions above are:
  1. Certification to a standard does not equate to sustainability. Standards are a means to pursuing sustainability objectives and differ from one another in their scopes, approaches and quality of implementation. One size does not fit all!
  2. Understand how to use standards as a tool for sustainability. It is important for users (e.g. consumers, brands and retailers, etc) of standards to recognized each standard’s strengths and limitations towards addressing specific sustainability objectives.
  3. Support standards to become more robust and effective. Standards should continuously seek to improve and should be supported by its users to become more robust and effective.
  4. Use of standards should be complemented by other tools and approaches. Standards alone are insufficient for achieving sectoral transformation towards sustainability. Other approaches, tools and actors have critical and complementary roles to play.
Driving sustainable cotton production is vital for people and nature
© wwf
WWF Benchmarking Standards in Cotton production
Better Cotton Initiative project in Pakistan
© Asim Hafeez / WWF-UK