Given the recent announcement at the Paris UN Climate Change Conference of commitments to make coffee the first sustainable commodity, […]

December 14, 2015

Given the recent announcement at the Paris UN Climate Change Conference of commitments to make coffee the first sustainable commodity, I wonder – just what would it take for other crops to go the same route?

As I write I am in Mumbai at the 74th Annual Plenary of the International Cotton Advisory Committee. ICAC is the intergovernmental body that oversees the vast world of cotton from farm to fabric. Even just from the perspective of knowing that the cloth we all wear actually sprouts from the ground as little downy white puffs (with some cotton actually emerging naturally pastel colored), it is a fascinating crop.



My friend José Sette, Executive Director of ICAC, reminds me that cotton is widely grown in 75 countries, with eight dominating global production. More than 100 million farmers grow cotton – four times more than those in coffee and 20 times more than those in cocoa. Given that cotton production can use more insecticides and pesticides than almost any other crop if not well managed, having cotton move toward greater sustainability is critical.

The sector is of course quite interested in its sustainability and is making laudable advances on many fronts. Still, much remains to be done. I took the opportunity to share with the audience at ICAC six of the lessons that we have learned from other sectors that could apply to cotton as well.

  • Standards matter

They are valuable but not as you might think. They are not magic wands; they are tools with the limitations and functionalities of tools.

  • Compliance checks are outdated…and insufficient

Box ticking is an outdated mode of working. We have the means to check compliance while focusing more heavily on capacity building.

  • Building systems that effectively transfer knowledge (and encourage adoption of good practices) is critical to success

We must evolve from a compliance mentality to one of knowledge sharing. Ensuring knowledge transfer – in both directions – will ensure greater adoption of good practice and greater sustainability.

  • Local solutions: One size does not fit all

Farmers’ ability to diagnose problems and create sustainable solutions that are locally appropriate is key to success. Each community is different; combining technical capacity building with local know-how enables an optimal response.

  • Multi-dimensional view

The multi-faceted nature of sustainability requires taking a holistic view. By taking into consideration social, environmental, and economic factors, solutions can be tailored which thoroughly respond to the situation – regardless of the crop in question.

  • Institutions Matter

Coops and local associations are particularly important partners in spreading awareness and gaining buy-in for sustainability. While it takes time to build these relationships, without them, initiatives will fail.

These lessons resonated with the crowd; their discussion also led to opening a new thread of work around those that require access to reliable information. As we say so often at COSA, access to unbiased information is vital for sound decision-making. To that very end, I met with the Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance of Cotton Production (SEEP), a dedicated group ably led by Chair Allan Williams and Vice-Chair Dr. Francesca Mancini.

SEEP has evolved a framework of indicators for understanding sustainability in cotton. They have done several things particularly well which could benefit other crops. First, they benchmarked and evaluated the work of the standards and sustainability bodies working in cotton and beyond so as not to reinvent the wheel. They then had a broad stakeholder review of the work to ensure relevance and start a process of buy-in. They are currently exploring how individuals, organizations, and governments can use these reference indicators as tools to understand and share their work. The next step is actually putting them to use in the field, which will mean going through a local vetting and adaptation process and then taking the steps necessary to gather data with them. I very much look forward to collaborating with SEEP going forward.

In the end, those working toward greater sustainability of coffee and other crops would be well-served by taking a page from cotton’s downy book.