Have you heard of BCI Cotton when you have been shopping for ethical clothing, but don’t know what it is? Let me break down what BCI Cotton is, and if it is actually sustainable, ethical, or organic.

Have you noticed the term BCI being used when it comes to cotton? You might be wondering what this means exactly. Is BCI cotton actually sustainable, ethical, or organic, or simply greenwash? Let me break it down for you. First I’ll explain what BCI means, if it is actually sustainable, and if not, what better ethical alternatives are out there when it comes to cotton.

What Is BCI Cotton?

Firstly, you might be wondering what BCI stands for. BCI stands for the Better Cotton Initiative. This is a global not-for-profit organisation, based in Geneva and London, that seeks to make the cotton industry more sustainable. They say their aim is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the future of the cotton industry. In fact, it is the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world.

There are seven principles that BCI farmers should follow:

  • Farmers should minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices
  • They should promote water stewardship
  • They should care for the health of the soil
  • BCI Farmers should enhance biodiversity and use land responsibly
  • They should care for and preserve fibre quality
  • They should promote decent work
  • And BCI Farmers should operate an effective management system

In order to help follow these principles the BCI offers support to farmers. This support includes training cotton farmers to use water efficiently and to care for natural habitats. It also includes support on reducing the use of harmful chemicals, and in respecting the rights of workers.

Which Brands Are BCI Members?

Members of BCI that promote sustainable cotton production include global fashion behemoths. These include H&M Nike, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Diesel, Inditex (Zara), Asos, Urban Outfitters, and Ralph Lauren.

Members also include big UK high street and online names. These include Next, Tesco, House of Fraser, JD Sports, Missguided, Sainsbury’s, Ted Baker, John Lewis, Fat Face, Aldi, Asos, and Boden.

What I found interesting about this list of brands that source BCI cotton is that they are not sustainable brands. And some of the BCI members, such as H&M, Zara, and Missguided, have been seriously questioned over their sustainability efforts.

Is BCI Cotton Sustainable, Ethical or Organic?

Image of white skeins of cotton with a blue text box that says "what is BCI cotton and is it sustainable or ethical?"

When it can take around 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt, it is undoubtedly important that brands source cotton that uses less water, and care for the health of the soil. However, BCI principles have raised some red flags for me around how sustainable its cotton actually is.

The first sustainability red flag is the use of the non-binding “should” in all of their seven principles. Having non-binding principles means you cannot know if farmers operating under BCI principles are indeed promoting water stewardship, caring for the health of the soil, or promoting decent work.

The other sustainability red flag is there are no direct principles on pesticide use. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, cotton covers just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land. However, cotton uses 6% of the world’s pesticides, and 16% of insecticides. This is more than any other single major crop.

And my third red flag when asking if BCI Cotton is sustainable, ethical, or organic, my question is why is BCI so popular with typical fast fashion brands? Why are ethical clothing brands not purchasers of this cotton? This immediately suggests that BCI principles cover the bare minimum of environmental requirements, at low cost.

I wanted to investigate these red flags and what I found only backed up my fears.

Driving Down Demand for Organic Cotton

In 2018 the Changing Markets Foundation published a report about the BCI. It said the rapid growth of the Better Cotton Initiative is driving down sustainability standards in the cotton industry. The report also concluded that of all the textile certification schemes that BCI is the worst.

This damning conclusion was drawn because, according to the report, the BCI scheme has undermined the market for the most environmentally friendly cotton option – organic cotton. Organic cotton uses 92% less water than conventional cotton, and uses no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers. BCI, meanwhile, tolerates the use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds.

As so many of the world’s largest fashion brands are sourcing BCI cotton, this has resulted in farmers switching from growing organic cotton to genetically modified, non-organic cotton. This answers the question quite clearly: BCI Cotton is not organic. And uptake of BCI cotton has made organic cotton harder to source. It’s quite a damning picture for BCI Cotton. But as BCI Cotton shuns the top tier of sustainable textiles, that being organic fabric, then the scheme is missing an important element in sustainability.

What About Pesticides?

The BCI says that their principles are reducing pesticide usages levels. For example, the BCI says that in the 2017-18 growing season, BCI Farmers in Tajikistan used 40% fewer pesticides compared to non-BCI farmers. The exact figure or a comparison figure is not provided, which makes it hard to establish a baseline. BCI farmers, could, in this scenario, still be using 60% more pesticides compared to organic cotton growers.

What remains clear is that, unlike organic cotton farmers, BCI farmers still use pesticides. And a scheme that endorses and certifies cotton that can harm the health and lives of farmers and cotton pickers, as well as driving down the organic cotton market is categorically not ethical nor is a good thing for the environment.

Why is BCI Cotton Popular With Fast Fashion Brands?

According to India’s Economic Times, BCI cotton is popular with international fashion brands as it is less expensive than organic cotton. This is because, in order for organic cotton to be certified as organic, the entire supply chain – from the growing to ginning (the process of separating cotton fibres from their seeds), to spinning, right up until the product reaches the end-user all has to be traced and certified. In the case of BCI cotton, only the growing and picking level is important.

Meanwhile, standards for organic cotton are the toughest to follow. BCI, in contrast, offers the minimum principles related to water conservation, and soil health. This means it is easier and less expensive to follow for the growers. And as the biggest demand from fashion brands is for the cheaper, lower standard BCI cotton, then it’s no wonder farmers are shunning organic cotton in order to access larger markets.

Brands want to be seen to be doing something for the environment. However, when that something is the bare minimum, then there are dire consequences. The drive to the bottom caused by demand for cheap ‘eco’ cotton by fashion brands has meant that in India alone, the total organic fibre production of the country has fallen by close to 50%.

The dominance of BCI is, according to the same article, also driving down the availability of non-GM cotton seeds. The BCI is neutral when it comes to genetically modified cotton. This means it is harder for organic farmers to source non-GM seeds required to grow organic cotton.

BCI Links to Uyghur Forced Labour

As well as non-binding principles, the BCI has links to the alleged forced labour of the Uyghurs (sometimes spelled as Uighurs) in Xinjiang, China. It’s quite a complex situation, so I will break it down as best as I can.

What Is Happening To the Uyghurs?

Since 2017, human rights organisations have accused China of running forced labour camps for Uyghur Muslims living in Xinjiang, a province in northwestern China. Xinjiang is often referred to as Chinese-occupied East Turkestan – the name Uyghurs prefer to call Xinjiang.

Here, over a million people belonging to ethnic, cultural, and religious groups, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui, have allegedly been detained by the Chinese government in forced work programmes.

Beijing has repeatedly denied the accusations, despite drone footage of shackled men, with Beijing calling the camps in question vocational training centres. However, human rights organisations say that Uyghur men and women, as well as the other groups, have been forcibly removed from their homes and existing jobs to work primarily in the Xinjiang cotton fields. Here, they are paid at most 15 cents a day to pick cotton, with most paid nothing at all. This cotton is then exported around the world.  Xinjiang cotton accounts for 85% of Chinese cotton production, and 20% of the world’s supply.

BCI’s Response to Forced Cotton Labouring

In response to this information coming to light, the BCI announced in October 2020, in a now-deleted statement, that it had taken the decision to cease all operations in the Uyghur Region. Here they stated at the time: “Sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China have contributed to an increasingly untenable operating environment, and BCI has, therefore, taken the decision to cease all field-level activities in the region effective immediately, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting”.

China’s Backlash

However, China has attempted to fight back against forced labour allegations surrounding the country’s cotton industry.

There has been a huge backlash by the Chinese government and consumers about Western brands and their decision to ditch Xinjiang cotton. As such, in March 2021, China blacklisted brands associated with the BCI. Some companies’ online shops were blocked from the Chinese internet, and their stores vanished from some digital maps. Initially, H&M and Nike were the sole targets of this blackout. However, attention soon widened to include Burberry, Adidas, and Converse, among other global brands.

While H&M’s physical stores in China remain open, the BBC reported that in March 2021 it was no longer possible to hail a taxi to the shops using an app. Consumers in China were also unable to shop online with the brand.

BCI’s U-Turn

After the backlash in China surrounding Xinjiang cotton, the BCI then deleted all public statements on and references to their previously published decisions to exit the Uyghur Region. They have also not issued any clarifications or further updates on Xinjiang cotton. The only communication on the matter was that the China branch of the BCI found no sign of forced labour in the Xinjiang region.

In response, human-rights advocates have hit out at the BCI for their continued silence on the topic. Advocates say that this silence contravenes its mission statement to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it.

The End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition published a statement in May 2021. Here it said that: “in failing to be transparent and public on BCI’s rationale for exiting the Uyghur region, BCI is putting at risk any credibility it could have in its commitment to ensure that decent work is embedded across its global cotton sustainability program. BCI’s own website states that “BCI does not operate in countries where forced labour is orchestrated by the government.

By continuing to operate in China without being clear on its zero tolerance for forced labour and its rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region, BCI is allowing itself to be used by the Chinese government to claim that business can go on as usual and to deny the ongoing crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic forced labour, in the Uyghur Region.

Further, continued silence by BCI taints all brands and retailers that use BCI cotton as an ethical alternative in an industry widely tainted by forced labour, as well as the farmers who trust BCI to take a stand for ‘better cotton’ production everywhere.”

It’s not a great look for an initiative already credited with driving down the organic cotton market.

What Should I Look For Instead of BCI Cotton?

If you are looking to avoid BCI cotton there are a few alternatives you can look for:

GOTS Certified Cotton

If you are looking for a more sustainable alternative to BCI cotton, then try GOTS Certified Cotton. GOTS certified cotton is cotton that has been certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard.

GOTS Certified cotton means that a textile product carrying the GOTS label must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres. Meanwhile a GOTS product with the label grade grade ‘organic’ must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres.

However, it is no panacea though. Organic fibre production is not directly covered by the GOTS certification system. This is because GOTS itself does not set standards for organic fibre cultivation. Instead, the cultivation of organic fibres falls under the scope of organic farming standards. As certification doesn’t apply to the growing, farming, or harvesting stage of cotton cultivation, this means there is still scope for forced labour and other humans rights abuse to occur in GOTS Certified cotton.

EU Eco-Label Cotton

The EU Eco-Label is a more sustainable alternative to BCI cotton.

To qualify for the EU Ecolabel, products have to comply with a tough set of criteria. These environmental criteria, set by a panel of experts from a number of stakeholders, including consumer organisations and industry, take the whole product life cycle into account. From the extraction of the raw materials, to production, packaging, and transport. It also extends right through to your use and then the end of a product’s life.

I admit I am finding it hard to find which ethical clothing brands use ECO Eco-label cotton. When I find them I will update this post.

Secondhand Cotton

One of the greenest things that you can do is shop secondhand for clothes. This bypasses the need to look for specific labelling. If you’re looking for some inspiration then check out my guide to secondhand clothes shops online.

The Cotton You Already Own

I can’t end this piece on BCI cotton without saying, that, as with anything when it comes to sustainability, the most sustainable item is the one you already own. When we are wasting the equivalent of one rubbish truck full of textiles every single second, no amount of eco-labels, however stringent, can dig us out of this hole. Those of us with disposable incomes really have to cut back on our clothing consumption to make clothing more sustainable.

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