Data and Impartiality Needed to Measure Sustainable Cotton’s Impact

To determine how sustainable cotton truly is, we need detailed data and a neutral party to verify that data. That was the consensus of independent activist Veronica Bates Kassatly, and sustainability consultant Crispin Argento. 

Kassatly and Argento discussed the challenges of measuring cotton sustainability with Kingpins founder Andrew Olah, in a panel, titled “Future Truthing Sustainable Cotton,” that was broadcast during the June edition of Kingpins24

Argento is the former executive director of the Organic Cotton Accelerator, an initiative that invests in organic cotton farmers. These days he works with brands, retailers and suppliers and farmers to help them expand their commitments to sustainable cotton. 

Kassatly is a former World Bank economist and financial analyst who has been researching the data behind sustainable claims. 

“I’m not an expert,” she said. “I’m not an expert in cotton, for sure. I just came across statements being made about cotton and claims being made about sustainability that I tried to substantiate. It’s been like a snowball from that.”

One of the challenges of measuring sustainability is the lack of consensus on a system of measurement or even a single definition of sustainability, Kassatly said. 

“People are basically saying whatever they like,” she said. “If everybody wants to do sustainability accounting, then you have to have an agreed definition. What do you mean by sustainable? You have to agree on a set of metrics —as simple as possible —that you would use to measure your sustainability. Everyone’s making claims about this fiber being more sustainable, that fiber being more sustainable. And nobody has data.”

Another issue is there are few neutral parties looking at sustainability claims and the data supporting them. 

“There are advocates within the sector for their own standards, which has created a kind of an acrimony among a number of standards and between various different methodology and practices,” Argento said. “It’s nice to have someone like Veronica with a strong voice who’s done the homework. It’s a real call to action for those within the sector to commit to demonstrating verified impacts of sustainable cotton and not just relying on this system of certification per se.”

Often overlooked in the research is the farmers’ perspectives on why they choose certain production methods over others. 

It could be lack of information about other farming methods or there could be external issues preventing the farmer from making other choices. An example Kassatly offered was the farmer could be “tied to a particular supplier through debt.”

“There [are] different branches of economics that could be combined to look at why farmers are taking certain decisions and what you could do to make their production more sustainable for them in terms of a better income and a better life.”

Argento also noted that there needs to be enough funding to train farmers and help them build capacity. 

“To actually commit to sustainability over time, we need to develop a system that invests in farmers and proves that there’s a strong business case for sustainability,” Argento said. 

The argument for sustainability should focus not just on a reduction in costs and inputs but also support a premium to incentivize the farmer, he added. As an example, Argento pointed to U.S.-based organic cotton programs that are able to command higher prices for their fibers by forming direct relationships with brands and supplier partners. 

“We need, as a sector, to go down to the farm,” he said. “We need to bring the farmers to the table, or farmer representatives, [to] really understand what the farmers need and what they want and how they want to operate as business people and how they want to contribute to a better world socially and environmentally.”

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