Have you ever heard of BCI cotton? If you’re like me and are trying to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, I know how tricky it can be to stay up to date with new sustainability certifications.
So when I heard about BCI cotton I knew I had to find out if it’s the real deal. If you haven’t already guessed, today we are going to explore BCI Cotton and answer the million-dollar question: what is BCI Cotton certification?
1. What is BCI Cotton?
It all started in 2005 when World Wildlife Fund and a few supporting organizations like Adidas, Gap Inc., H&M, IKEA, Organic Exchange, Oxfam, and Pesticide Action Network UK came together to find a better alternative to standard cotton.
While technically “natural”, the production of cotton is pretty awful for the environment, farm workers, and communities. A few years later, BCI Cotton certification was born.
So, what is BCI Cotton, and what makes it so “sustainable”? The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI or Better Cotton for short) is one of the largest sustainability labeling programs in the fashion industry today. What makes Better Cotton unique is its claim of using a farmer-centric approach - specifically improving their education, knowledge, and well-being.
They do this by working with 70 different field-level partners in 25 different countries. As of writing this article, Better Cotton has more than 2,300 members along the entire cotton textile value chain from farmers, suppliers, and brands, to governments and their programs have already reached nearly 4 million people who work in cotton production. In just the last year or two, their membership has grown by 35%...Better Cotton is huge!
2. Is BCI Cotton certified?
BCI Cotton certification is certainly taking the textile industry by storm, but what does this certification really entail? Better Cotton draws from seven core principles and criteria for certification:
Cotton can attract a LOT of pests, diseases, and infestations. To combat this challenge, farmers might choose to use synthetic pesticides. Because of the negative impacts, the overuse of pesticides can have on human and environmental health, this standard is all about finding solutions for pest control that go beyond pesticides.
When farmers do choose to use pesticides, Better Cotton will support practices that will minimize the risk of harmful effects and use a wider range of control techniques that reduce reliance on a single method of pest control.
This is a big one since water has always been a major limiting factor in cotton production and climate change is expected to worsen the issues of water scarcity.
In response, Better Cotton helps farmers use water more efficiently (on both rained and irrigated farms) to achieve greater yields. There are even some studies out there to back up BCI Cotton requiring less water and energy than conventional cotton.
Soil health is extremely important for any farmer. The difference with Better Cotton certification is the use of soil management practices (like nutrient cycling) and the development of a Soil Management Plan to help prevent drought, improve soil fertility, and minimize erosion.
Biodiversity and land use
Similar to soil, Better Cotton supports farmers in adopting a Biodiversity Management Plan. To lessen their impact on biodiversity BCI farmers can conserve or enhance the natural areas of their land and adopt practices that will minimize the negative impact on biodiversity in their work. This might include working to enhance the populations of natural insects or restoring degraded areas.
This standard is all about using best practices while harvesting, storing, and transporting the cotton since these can all have a positive or negative effect on the end quality of the product. For example, cotton is hygroscopic meaning that it absorbs moisture from the surrounding air.
So when cotton is stored in very moist and wet conditions this can promote the growth of microbes and damage the fibers!
Better Cotton also takes social considerations into account. They even go as far as to say that better cotton is only “better” when it generates improvements for the farmers and the communities in which they live. Unfortunately, BCI cotton was linked to forced labor in the Xinjiang region in 2016… and even though BCI formed a labor task force to address this issue, the jury is still out in my opinion.
According to Better Cotton, a management system is a framework of policies, processes, and procedures used by the Producer to ensure that they can fulfill all the tasks required to meet BCI standards and encourage continuous improvement in farming practices.
With this in mind, BCI-certified farmers will be supported using various management systems to ensure they meet these principles and criteria.
If you're wondering after all of this, “how reliable is the BCI Cotton standard?” … I wouldn’t get my hopes up. These principles are more of a guideline rather than an abiding standard and it is difficult to trace BCI-certified products back to their source.
This is partially because the standard itself is implemented at the farm level and each case is unique so this can be tough to regulate, but we will get more into this later.
3. What is the difference between BCI Cotton and regular cotton?
My readers know how much conventional cotton irks me. There is a good reason for this since it is produced in a very, very dirty way! To start, conventional cotton takes a LOT of water to produce. According to WWF, it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt!
Cotton production also requires a TON of chemicals - specifically pesticides. These pesticides will eventually flow into rivers, and lakes and pollute our natural ecosystems. Finally, cotton manufacturers have been linked to child labor and farmers often aren’t paid a fair wage.
The workers in these situations are oftentimes exposed to all of these chemicals for hours on end and can develop skin irritation, nausea, seizures, and even cancer. I find this very concerning.
In my opinion, BCI Cotton certification is better than conventional cotton… but not by much. While BCI-certified farmers are supposed to be using best practices through management systems, we can’t always trace BCI-marked products back to the direct farms employing these practices.
This is because with over 10,000 supply chain actors BCI simply can’t ensure full traceability and transparency. BCI Cotton and regular cotton might not be all that different after all.
4. BCI Cotton vs GOTS
What is GOTS certified? GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard and is another cotton certification program. The main difference is that BCI works with farmers while GOTS is a mainstream initiative that requires textiles to be made from at least 70% certified organic natural fibers. More specifically, GOTS covers cotton harvesting, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, and distribution.
However, this isn’t the only difference between BCI and organic cotton!
Another difference worth mentioning is GMOs. GMO cotton is technically allowed under BCI Cotton certification, however, GMOs aren’t considered organic and would not pass the GOTS standard. Similarly, pesticides and fertilizers (while being phased out through a management plan) are permitted with BCI and not GOTS.
To get to the point, organic cotton is preferable since it uses less water, energy, and GMOs, and produces fewer greenhouse gasses. At the end of the day, it is a more rigorous certification I can stand behind. If you are interested in learning more about organic cotton, I would definitely recommend checking out brands like Obakki, LA RELAXED, and The Classic T-Shirt Company.
5. Is BCI Cotton sustainable and ethical?
How sustainable is BCI cotton? The answer to this depends on who you ask. But I think to have the full picture here we need to look at the pros and cons of BCI Cotton.
6. The link between BCI Cotton and fast fashion
It is no secret the fast fashion industry and climate change go hand and hand. But the real kicker with Better Cotton is their link to fast fashion and fast furniture! Most of BCI’s funding comes from retail giants like H&M, Gap, and Zara… brands that are also heavily linked to the fast fashion industry! Does anyone else smell greenwashing here?
7. What should I look for instead of BCI Cotton?
I am a big believer in knowing how to read clothes labels, even if it's to spot labels you'd rather avoid (cough cough). With this in mind, there are a few ways you can verify BCI-certified textiles and fabrics.
Look for a light green logo and the words “Better Cotton Initiative” in a bold font (you might also see a lowercase “b” with a cotton symbol in the center). When in doubt, you can also check BCI’s brand list.
If you are in Europe, The EU Eco-Label is a more sustainable alternative. In order for companies to be part of this label they need to comply with strict criteria which are set by a panel of experts and stakeholders.
They take the whole lifecycle of a product into account, basically adhering to the principles of a circular economy. It's harder to spot and we need more brands using it.
A final word on BCI Cotton
So, is BCI Cotton sustainable? Kind of... While better than conventional cotton, I would say this difference is slim. Until funding isn’t coming from the very brands that are causing the problems BCI is claiming to solve, I would stay away from this one and explore what better fabrics are out there (like hemp, organic cotton, and bamboo). BCI Cotton certification still has some work to do.
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