13 July 2019 LESSONS

Sustainable Raw Materials

A close up of hands holding a single thread

As a convening initiative, Cotton 2040 was designed to accelerate progress and maximise the impact of current sustainability initiatives across the global cotton industry

The aim was to align the efforts of industry stakeholders, and through joint action and collaboration to create greater positive impact in the global cotton industry

  • to develop a shared and enhanced understanding of future challenges and opportunities for the cotton sector
  • to identify the areas in which action needs to be taken to create long term viability for the industry 
  • to initiate collaborative action in priority areas to help create systemic change in the industry for sustainability


Partner: Forum for the Future

Investment: EUR 556,368 (C&A Foundation)

Duration: 4 years (2014-18)

Geographic region: Global


Adopting an incremental, phased approach to systems change for sustainability in the global cotton industry was appropriate but it had limitations

The phased design of the initiative that began with scoping and scenario planning was relevant. Scenario planning, in particular, was cited by brands as a key factor for generating initial enthusiasm. Industry respondents viewed these efforts as innovative, enabling them to view the potential future of the cotton sector

The initiative led to the development of a sustainable cotton sourcing guide along with an agreement in principle to develop a harmonized approach for robust traceability systems and impact measurement across standards  However, the initiative did not fulfil all the intended objectives.

Besides the challenges existing in the sustainable cotton sector, the main contribution of the initiative has been that of a convening force in the cotton sector, provision of guidance on sustainable cotton sourcing options as well as design of a platform for facilitating collaboration with appropriate partners

The initiative has created adequate momentum in facilitating systemic change for sustainability in the global cotton industry. By creating a neutral, 'standard agnostic' space for dialogue among sustainable standards and codes, it has helped develop the cotton sourcing guide that was based on substantial input and collaboration among standards and organisations

Through the process of co-creation of the sourcing guide, the initiative helped develop higher levels of trust and respect among sustainability standards and codes; creating a basis for further work amongst these organisations

However, the initiative’s potential remains to be explored - first by assessing the degree to which the Cotton UP sourcing guide will impact others beyond the early adopter community of brands and retailers. Efforts of standards and code based organisation to converge on the impact measures across standards for single frames of reference is dependent on agreement among the standards and codes

Results achieved were reported to be commensurate with efforts and funded expended however, there was room for improvement in organisational efficiency

Stakeholders appreciated that the initiative provided a neutral facilitation forum to discuss issues on traceability and impact but indicated for stronger leadership by the partner. Gaps in the implementing partner's technical expertise was reported as a potential constraint to efficiency

Further, the co-creation of the guide with collaborating partners was not a smooth process as several organisations did not produce deliverables in a timely manner or did not provide content in a specified way

What did we learn?

C&A Foundation

Supporting systems change initiatives over a longer duration is vital because change takes time. In the field of sustainable cotton building trust among stakeholders, and the impact of systemic change initiatives often become visible only several years after interventions occur

It is important to develop tailored monitoring and evaluation approaches for convening initiatives and systems change initiatives 

Collaboration among code based organisations and standards for substantial work (development of a sourcing guide) takes time. Further, working together helps develop higher levels of trust and respect among partners that previously worked in relative isolation from each other

For Partners & Others

While the initiative adopted an incremental approach to systems change for sustainable cotton was relevant and useful in early stages, implementation activities must be contextualized within a longer-term strategic and operational plan that provides greater clarity to stakeholders on the long term objectives

A well-researched conceptual framework, scenario planning and identification of key issues (related to sustainability in the global cotton industry) for future intervention is important to lay the foundation for developing informed implementation pathways 

Plans to collect and incorporate user feedback on relevance and usability of the sustainable cotton sourcing guide must focus on smaller and medium size brands and retailers as well as those that are in inception stages of their sustainability portfolio reaching out to Asian and Latin American markets 

Brands make large investments in support of sustainable initiatives, but are doing so in an environment lacking cohesive and credible data on impacts of the myriad standards and codes. It is important to have single frames of references and entry points for brands and retailers to navigate through the different codes and standards