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Cotton sustainability certifications to be harmonised

© Shutterstock / Caglayan Unal SumerPost Thumbnail

The Better Cotton Initiative and its partners have launched the Delta Framework, outlining a standardised set of sustainability indicators to be shared among coffee and cotton certification schemes. 

  • The Delta Framework aims to provide a consistent method for certifying the sustainability of coffee and cotton farms. 
  • Agricultural commodities are associated with a wide range of social and environmental problems, resulting in increased scrutiny from downstream businesses, investors and consumers alike. 
  • A standardised framework will improve transparency on sustainability, and raise questions for those not taking action.

What is the Delta Framework? 

The Delta Framework was co-founded by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the Global Coffee Platform, the International Cotton Advisory Committee and the International Coffee Organization, and has been developed and tested over a three-year period.  

It establishes 15 social, environmental and economic indicators that can be shared among different certification schemes to standardise how the sustainability of coffee and cotton farms is measured and reported. 

The indicators, which include fertiliser and pesticide use, water management, topsoil carbon content, land conversion, emissions, labour practices and pricing, are accompanied by a range of methodologies, recommendations and best practice case studies to encourage their adoption. 

To date, eight sustainable cotton standards, programmes and codes have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding to say that they will develop a timeline for the integration of the Delta indicators with their existing monitoring, evaluation and reporting systems. 

According to BCI’s chief executive Alan McClay, “the Delta Framework is making it easier for the private sector, governments and farmers to report effectively on sustainability progress, leading to improvements in the quality of support and services provided to farmers, including better financing and government policies.”   

The issues with coffee and cotton 

Coffee and cotton are two of the most commonly used commodities, with coffee being the most consumed beverage worldwide aside from water while cotton is used in making the vast majority of clothes, furniture and several other everyday items. They are both, however, associated with severe environmental and social consequences. 

The Fairtrade Foundation reports that most of the world’s coffee is produced by 25 million smallholders, with 125 million people depending on it for their livelihoods. Climate change, pest infestations and declining market prices, however, have converged to place these livelihoods at risk. 

Indeed, estimates suggest that the amount of land suitable for growing coffee will decline by half before 2050, largely due to projected increases in global temperatures. Producer regions are already experiencing extreme weather conditions that contribute to the market’s volatile prices.  

The complexity of the coffee supply chain, which involves several intermediaries between growers and end consumers, has also exposed producers to exploitation as they have little control over the final selling price. 

Cotton production, meanwhile, has been linked with similar price fluctuations and exploitative labour conditions. Furthermore, it is estimated to account for around 220 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.  

Conventional cotton farms also use sizeable volumes of nitrous oxide-releasing synthetic fertilisers and huge amounts of water. It takes approximately 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt, while the dyeing of fabrics consumes around 5 trillion litres of water annually. They are generally monocultural plantations, which reduce biodiversity and lead to soil erosion. 

The need for sustainability certification 

The risks associated with agricultural commodities are becoming increasingly recognised, with Race to Zero having recently projected a 7% loss in value to the food and agricultural sectors by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario. 

Given the interrelationships between climate change, biodiversity and productivity, the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector is beginning to acknowledge the need to ensure the resilience of their supply chains. 

As well as direct risks to their operations, FMCG businesses are facing tighter regulations, pressure from investors and increasing consumer demand for sustainable products.  

Banks and investors are seeking to align their decisions with climate and biodiversity goals while simultaneously mitigating social risks such as human rights abuse and poor labour standards, while survey analysis suggests that around 49% of consumers are now willing to pay premium prices for socially or environmentally responsible options. 

Companies that fail to live up to or effectively explain their sustainability credentials are regularly accused of greenwashing, with several consumer protection bodies cracking down on their efforts to penalise unsubstantiated green claims. 

Third-party voluntary certification standards are often advocated as solutions to enhance the sustainability of agricultural commodities. Such standards define specific practices that improve sustainability, with the resulting certification expected to provide economic benefits for stakeholders by differentiating their produce in line with upstream demand.  

In doing so, they serve as market-based instruments that can encourage the scaled-up adoption of best practices by other suppliers. They can also complement regulatory frameworks, either by demonstrating the processes, measurements and reporting that should be expected or by holding businesses accountable in areas where government legislation is lacking. 

A standardised framework could make sustainability certification more effective 

Despite the potential benefits of sustainability certifications, studies on their effectiveness suggest that results vary significantly. Given the costs and effort associated both with their management and with compliance, certification schemes are only worthwhile if they can consistently provide the expected reassurance. 

The Coffee Barometer 2020 details how the sustainability certifications currently available for coffee differ significantly on their criteria, audit methodologies and how they are communicated to stakeholders. It notes that this lack of consistency reduces the transparency of such schemes, and suggests that businesses will only be held accountable once clear, standardised metrics are in place. 

As such, the standardised approach of the Delta Framework could prove extremely useful if adopted at scale.

A consistent approach would benefit several stakeholders – providing guidance for certification bodies, simplifying compliance by providing a common understanding of what is expected and simplifying the decisions of consumers, investors and businesses seeking to improve the resilience of their supply chains. 

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