There is a solution to the environmental and social impacts of cotton

It can take more than 10,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of cotton and about 8,000 litres for a pair of jeans1. In addition, conventional cotton growing uses about 7% of the pesticides and 16% of insecticides applied globally in agriculture, posing risks to the environment and worker health2. This is why we focus on buying more sustainable cotton, including organic cotton, which has significantly lower impacts - eliminating the application of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, while reducing water consumption by 91%3.


For the Love of Fashion - Alexandra Cousteau's journey to explore more sustainable cotton

To celebrate our 175th anniversary this year, we have teamed up with renowned broadcaster, the National Geographic Channel, to explore more sustainable cotton practices around the world on film. The 45-minute documentary ‘For the Love of Fashion’ provides invaluable insights to highlight the importance of this shift in the cotton industry. The documentary follows Alexandra Cousteau, explorer and granddaughter of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, on her journey across India, US and Europe to find more sustainable ways of producing cotton. Watch a 5 or 15 minute version and trailers here.

What we mean by 'more sustainable' cotton

C&A supports several approaches to growing cotton in sustainable ways:

Organic—Grown without chemicals or genetically modified organisms. In Europe, we have referred to our organic cotton clothing as having been made with 'Bio Cotton'.

Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)—A programme to improve conventional cotton growing through sustainable approaches. Supported by hundreds of companies across the supply chain to grow cotton in a way that respects the environment, boosts farmer incomes, and strengthens the industry. Cotton grown in this programme is called ‘Better Cotton’.

Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL)—Another  programme to improve conventional cotton growing through sustainable approaches led by CottonConnect. We call cotton grown in this programme ‘REEL cotton’.

We source our cotton from India, China, Pakistan, Brazil and the US. 90% of the organic cotton used in the products we source comes from India.

Due to concerns about forced labour, we do not accept any cotton from Uzbekistan.

Our more sustainable cotton journey

We began our cotton journey more than 10 years ago when we introduced the first organic cotton products to our collection. When we made our commitment, we were not exactly sure how far we could take our purchases of organic cotton, but we were committed.  When we began we established the following four principles:


  1. Cost neutral for the consumer - To accelerate organic cotton we wanted to ensure that our customers could make easy decisions when purchasing.  We committed to ensuring that the cost was not passed on to our customers.  When you purchase an organic cotton garment at C&A it will always be the same price as a comparable garment.
  2. Pure-play organic - We do not blend organic cotton with conventional or BCI cotton like other retailers do.  When you purchase an organic cotton garment at C&A that is labelled organic, you can be sure that the cotton portion of the garment is 100% organic and not blended with conventional cotton fibres.  We will blend cotton with synthetic fibers to improve functionality in some cases.
  3. Commitment to traceability - We were one of the first brands to require that Transaction Certificates (TCs) be maintained throughout the cotton supply chain.  When you buy an organic cotton garment at C&A, you can ensure that we can trace the garment back to the farm group.  We also conduct regular GMO testing on our garments to ensure no contamination.
  4. Focus on increasing organic cotton farming - We founded CottonConnect with the Shell Foundation and Textile Exchange in 2009 to deliver a market-driven approach that provides opportunities for retailers and brands, as well as farmers, to expand economic opportunity, reduce poverty, and protect the environment.

Today, 40% of our cotton globally comes from more sustainable cotton sources, such as organic, Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) Cotton, and the Better Cotton Initiative. The total weight of cotton ordered in 2015 globally was around 130,000mt. Going forward, we want all the cotton used in our products to be grown in a way that respects the environment, protects natural resources, and supports workers’ health and livelihoods.

Our more sustainable cotton journey

Our sustainable cotton strategy

In 2015, we reviewed our cotton strategy to make sure we continue supporting the industry shift to more sustainable cotton as effectively as we can.

1. Redefining our cotton portfolio:

  • Reaffirming our commitment to organic cotton and supporting a stronger organic cotton sector through the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), an initiative focused on building a flourishing organic cotton market.
  • We also committed to supporting the Cotton 2040 project led by Forum for the Future and funded by the C&A Foundation by participating on the Transparency and Traceability and Circular Economy for Cotton Workstreams.
  • Lastly we joined the Better Cotton Initiative and began migrating our REEL programme to Better Cotton to increase the availability of more sustainable alternatives.

2. Developed a new 2015 - 2020 strategy to reach 100% more sustainable cotton in each of our regions with roadmaps based on seasonal line plans.

3. Deepened our understanding of the impact and dependencies of cotton production on water and natural capital through our work with the Water Footprint Network and Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.  We also analyzed our cradle-to-grave water impacts through a value chain water footprint.


Organic cotton

134 billion

liters of water saved from C&A's purchase of organic cotton.

Climate impacts3 are decreased by


No pesticides are used making it safer for farmers and their communities' health 

Reaffirming our commitment to organic

Organic cotton has been at the heart of our sustainable materials strategy for more than 10 years. Now, as we move towards our 2020 goals, we remain committed to purchasing more organic cotton and taking a stronger role in supporting the organic cotton sector. Grown without synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), organic cotton also uses up to 91% less blue water and reduces global warming potential by 46%3./typo3/#_ftn1 This protects soil quality, biodiversity, and water supply, while preventing water pollution. And it’s safer for farmers and their communities’ health.  In 2015, the Textile Exchange estimated that through the purchase of organic cotton, C&A saved 133.8 billion liters of water, prevented 123 tons of pesticides to be used, and improved the soil in more than 136,000 hectares of land.

The impact of our use of organic cotton

World’s largest user of organic cotton

In 2015, for the third time, C&A was named the world’s largest user of organic cotton in the Textile Exchange's Organic Cotton Market Report . Also during the year, 33.1% of the cotton products we sold globally - more than 138 million items - were made from organic cotton. From the grower to the garment maker, our organic cotton supply chain is certified to the Organic Content Standard (OCS) or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and never blended.


Historical Organic Cotton Sales (million pieces)

Supporting a stronger organic cotton sector

Less than 1% of cotton produced globally is organic, and the sector faces a number of challenges: lack of seed availability, few incentives for farmers, limited access to the market, and lack of supply chain transparency. Unless these issues are addressed, the whole sector is at risk. We are continuing our work to strengthen the organic cotton sector in several ways.

Collaborating to drive organic cotton

Since 2014, we’ve supported the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), which aims to create an organic cotton market that benefits everyone, from the farmer to the consumer. C&A is a founder member and C&A Foundation has provided core financial support for the first four years. The OCA aims to increase the current volume of organic cotton by 300%. With our fellow OCA members - brands, retailers, non-profit organizations, and social enterprises - we’re working to find the best ways to strengthen the organic cotton sector and support a healthy supply and demand. Plans include:

  • Helping farmers through training
  • Making better seeds available
  • Improving the business case
  • Promoting best practices throughout the organic cotton supply chain
  • Improving integrity and market transparency

Helping farmers cultivate organic cotton

In addition to funding the OCA, C&A Foundation is supporting farmers in the organic sector through partners like CottonConnect, Rare, ASA, WWF, and Aga Khan Foundation. In 2015, C&A Foundation provided €7 million to social and environmental programmes in India, China, and Pakistan. Every initiative is designed to improve farmers’ incomes and livelihoods, and contribute to the environment and local communities. To date, C&A Foundation has helped 19,943 farmers adopt organic cotton cultivation practices.

CottonConnect, created by C&A, the Shell Foundation, and Textile Exchange in 2009, has helped smallholder farmers move from conventional, high-impact farming to more sustainable methods. It’s designed to link farmers with the international cotton market and help retailers source more sustainable cotton from smallholders. CottonConnect is helping 16,056 cotton farmers convert to organic cultivation practices.


In organic farming, we have to use no chemical pesticide or fertiliser, so the expenses of farming are reduced.

Farmer in Gujarat

Better cotton

2,573 tonnes

of BCI cotton purchased in our first three months of membership



of the 1.3 million farmers reached by BCI are smallholders.

BCI  learning groups deliver training to support social and economic development of smallholders and their communities.

Joining the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)

C&A became a member of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2015. BCI is supported by 500 companies, united across the supply chain to grow cotton in a way that respects the environment, boosts farmer incomes, and strengthens the industry. The initiative already reaches one million farmers in 20 countries, with a goal to have about five million farmers producing Better Cotton by 2020.

Through BCI, C&A will be able to source a greater variety of more sustainable cotton fibre, from more origins, helping us to meet our goal of 100% more sustainable cotton by 2020.

We are also migrating our Responsible Environment Enhanced Programme (REEL) Cotton to the BCI programme, which is based on the same sustainable production principles. C&A Foundation is already supporting C&A’s 11,000 REEL cotton farmers in China, India, and Pakistan as they shift to Better Cotton farming, giving them better access to international markets.

In 2015, C&A used both REEL Cotton and Better Cotton. Together with certified organic cotton, 40% of the cotton we procured was more sustainable.


Understanding the water footprint of cotton

Reducing these impacts is at the heart of our corporate water strategy, which we’re developing in 2016. We began this work by getting an in-depth understanding of our water footprint with expert help from the Water Footprint Network (WFN).

In 2015, we worked with C&A Foundation and WFN, with support from CottonConnect, to better understand the water footprint and other impacts of organic, REEL, and conventional cotton. The study looked at differences in agricultural practices and technologies and their relative impacts on water use and water pollution by analyzing the practices of 1,144 cotton farmers in India, where we source most of our cotton. Because industry research on this topic has been limited, this study will contribute to broader knowledge for the sector.

WFN also developed water efficiency benchmarks and reduction targets, and identified ways to significantly reduce water pollution by moving from conventional to organic cotton farming methods. In 2015, WFN also helped us to visualize where water is affected in cotton cultivation, allowing us to focus on the areas where we can make the largest impact.


How water is consumed and impacted in cotton cultivation

More recently, we’ve compared organic and conventional cotton farming and found striking differences in yields and in the grey water footprint. For instance, the study revealed that REEL farms yielded three times more cotton than the organic farms and 1.5 times more than conventional farms. In addition, the highest water pollution footprint of conventional farms can be up to 333,766 m3 per tonne of cotton, whereas the lowest can be just 178 m3 per tonne of cotton produced using organic methods. That’s a 99.9% reduction in water pollution. Thus, replicating the practices of the best-performing farms in the study would significantly reduce the water footprint of cotton. 

We’re very encouraged by these results, and more committed than ever to investing in farmer training and helping them adopt more sustainable agricultural practices to reduce impacts and increase yields. Looking ahead, we’ll continue working with WFN to research other aspects of our water footprint and develop our water strategy.

Going forward, we aim to focus not only on these three impact areas, but also on the strong connection between our efforts and the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Clean Water and Sanitation. We will bring together the ongoing work of WFN with our Aligned Incentives water footprinting work to further understand our impacts on water consumption and the impacts of chemicals on surface water in cotton agriculture and garment manufacture areas. 

We also recognise that water stress and scarcity in cotton agriculture and garment manufacturing regions can be a useful lens to help us prioritise efforts. In 2016, we plan to use our hybrid LCA methodology to quantify the impacts on water stress and scarcity while beginning to quantify the cost of ecosystem services related to clean, fresh water.

On the way to more sustainable cotton: drip irrigation

In the water-scarce region of Gujurat, India, 1,208 farmers across 2,500 acres have received loans and technical support to install drip irrigation. This form of irrigation can increase yields by 30% and reduce water use by up to 60% compared to traditional systems. Now in its sixth year, the project is led by CottonConnect, with support from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and a loan fund created with contributions from C&A Foundation and the Gujarat Green Revolution Company. 

Accelerating action on natural capital 

In 2015, C&A joined other industry leaders convened by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership to identify the best ways to grow cotton and safeguard natural capital—including water, soil, plants, trees, and wildlife. The study paves the way for best practices to be integrated into farmer training, while an accompanying online cotton tool explores production practices and their impacts on natural capital.




By 2020 we want to source 100% more sustainable cotton fibre. To get there, industry collaboration including with other brands will be essential.  Because we are the leader in organic cotton, we have the ability to also share our learnings.

David Millar, Head of Fabrics C&A Europe

We are working to stimulate demand by helping spinning companies to understand the benefits of more sustainable cotton. It is a pioneer and challenging initiative in Brazil, but one to be proud of.

Leandro Ito, Sourcing Processes Manager Brazil

Regional Progress

Each C&A region has created a strategy to meet our common global sustainable cotton goal by addressing the unique market and supply chain challenges and opportunities in each region.


In China, we have been importing organic cotton mostly from India. But we’re working to increase our intake of organic cotton from Chinese growers. In 2015, C&A Foundation began a three-year project in Wuhan with RARE to support farmers who want to convert to organic methods. C&A has already begun buying cotton grown in this programme and will buy more in 2016.


In Mexico, we will increase the amount of sustainable cotton we use through BCI and continue expanding use of organic cotton in children’s clothing collections.


Brazil is a major producer of Better Cotton, responsible for 55% of the worldwide Better Cotton supply. However, most of this cotton is exported because local demand for Better Cotton is low. C&A Brazil is working to stimulate demand by helping spinning companies understand the benefits and by collaborating with the Brazilian Textile Industry Association.


In Europe, 41% of C&A’s cotton products were made from organic cotton in 2015, including baby items, children's clothing, and fashions for women and men. Customer outreach featured clothing made from organic cotton and recycled polyester.

More Sustainable Cotton for Babies


Sixty percent of C&A Brazil’s 2015 baby collection was made from more sustainable cotton - and we’re on track to reach 80% in 2016. One of our customers, a blogger, discovered our more sustainable products and decided to share it. 

1 Water Footprint Network: Toward sustainable water use in C&A's cotton supply chain, 2016.

2 ICAC Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance (SEEP), Pesticides used in cotton production in Australia, Brazil, India, Turkey and the US, 2010.

3Textile Exchange: The Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton Fiber - A Global Average Summary Of Findings, 2014.

Case Study

Europe: Jeans deliver 65% water savings

Jeans—usually made from 100% cotton—are a well-loved part of many wardrobes. But denim production comes with environmental challenges. For instance, the popular ‘distressed’ look requires heavy use of dyes, chemicals, water, and energy. C&A Europe has launched a new line of jeans that use 65% less water in finishing, which is the final denim washing during production.

In just the first year, we saved 70 million litres of water. Innovative software helped to develop the water-saving approaches and we worked with three suppliers in Bangladesh to evaluate them. Third-party audits confirmed the water savings, so our customers can trust the results.

To date, we’ve produced more than 1 million pieces, with styles for men, women, and children. We’ve continued working with the same three suppliers to ensure the new processes are fully embedded, and plan to train more supply partners in the coming year.

Mexico: Jeans cut water use by one-third

In Mexico, we support denim suppliers who invest in sustainable textile treatment, using less water and energy, and replacing harmful chemicals with biodegradable alternatives.

On average in 2015, our suppliers used nearly 33% less water to make our water saving jeans, compared to conventional jeans. The water saving denim collection is steadily growing, accounting for 16.7% of our denim collection, compared to 9.4% in 2014, when we launched the collection. 

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