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'If we can do it, everyone can': M&S's sustainable cotton mission

Marks & Spencer has led the way in sustainable cotton sourcing, and is now providing guidance for other retailers to follow suit

Phil townsend, m&s sustainable raw materials specialist copy

Phil Townsend, Marks & Spencer

Retailers including high street giant Marks & Spencer have partnered with sourcing initiatives from around the world to call on the fashion industry to radically increase its sourcing of sustainable cotton.

Uptake of sustainable cotton from the fashion industry is still only around 3% of total global cotton supply, campaign group Global Fashion Agenda’s 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report shows.

M&S is a partner in Cotton 2040 initiative’s new Cotton Up guide. Launched at the Better Cotton Initiative’s Global Cotton Conference in Brussels on 26-28 June, it has been designed to provide advice and support on creating a sustainable sourcing strategy.

Phil Townsend, sustainable raw materials specialist at M&S, tells Drapers why brands and retailers have no excuse when it comes to building sustainable cotton sourcing strategies.

Why is it so important that retailers create sustainable cotton sourcing strategies?

Cotton is one of the most abundant natural fibres, and makes up 30% of the fibre used to make clothing. It is hugely important for M&S, because our customers love the feel and look of cotton. However, if cotton is not cultivated in a responsible way it can have a negative impact, namely water quality and quantity, but there are also issues around the chemicals and pesticides used in the growing process and social issues. [It can take as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton, and chemicals used in its cultivation can pollute surrounding ecosystems or harm workers’ health.] There are challenges that are particularly pertinent to cotton. Our approach at M&S is to look at each material and the challenges that come with those materials, and move them onto a more sustainable footing. We started with cotton and have converted 77% of our cotton to be more sustainable. The next target is to have 100% sustainable cotton by 2019.

How can retailers and brands start to build sustainable cotton sourcing strategies?

The first thing is to understand the challenges that cotton presents. Make sure your organisation understands why we need sustainable cotton and knows which regions you source cotton from, and ensure there’s a good level of traceability within your supply chain. It is also about looking at which sustainable cotton option works best for your product mix, working with suppliers and your buying team, and setting some measurable targets to work towards. We brought forward our sustainable cotton target of 100% by 2019 by a year as a measure of how confident we felt. M&S is a big corporation, with lots of complex products and a complicated supply chain, and if we can do it, everyone can.

Tell us about the Cotton Up guide

We need to find a way to scale up sustainable cotton production. Between 15% and 20% of cotton production is now classed as sustainable, so there’s no excuse. There was a lot of information out there, but it was all in different places and it was all quite technical, quite complex.

This single-portal platform [cottonupguide.org] will help retailers to navigate sustainable cotton and has been designed to be really accessible for the industry, appealing to non-technical roles such as designers and buyers. We want to help newer brands and retailers learn the lessons we learnt when switching to sustainable cotton.

What are the barriers preventing retailers sourcing cotton sustainably?

There are far fewer barriers than there were a few years ago. The supply of sustainable cotton is there. Retailers need a commitment from the top, at chief executive level. Really, I don’t think there should be any barriers and all brands should be sourcing cotton sustainably. If there’s a collective will and commitment, you can get there.

Are customers becoming more interested in sustainability?

We have absolutely seen a renewed interest in sustainability. There are a lot of brands doing good things and we do talk to other brands and retailers to see how they are working sustainably. There’s a real spirit of collaboration and competition out there in the industry, which spurs us on.

Click here to download Drapers’ special report on sustainability, exploring the steps retailers need to take to get closer to a circular model.

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