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Better Cotton to Expand Due Diligence After Brazil Deforestation Investigation

Fashion’s biggest sustainable cotton certifier said it found no evidence of non-compliance at farms covered by its standard, but acknowledged weaknesses in its monitoring approach.
A combine harvests cotton in a field in Central-West Brazil.
Better Cotton has published summary results of a third-party audit investigating alleged links between farms covered by its standard and deforestation. (Evaristo SA/AFP via Getty Images)

Fashion’s biggest sustainable cotton certification scheme is planning to expand its due diligence requirements following allegations that farms covered by its standard contributed to serious environmental and human rights abuses in Brazil.

According to an investigation published earlier this month by the NGO Earthsight, Better Cotton-certified farms were linked to large-scale deforestation, land grabbing and violent harassment of local communities in the sensitive Cerrado ecoregion. This “tainted” cotton was then finding its way into the supply chains of major brands like H&M and Zara, the report found.

Better Cotton said Tuesday that a third-party audit conducted by consultancy Peterson Global found no evidence its standards had been breached at the three farms it said were covered by its certification. However, it acknowledged that the findings revealed weaknesses in its current approach, which is focused on the situation on specific farms without considering the broader activities of their owners. The organisation said it will consult with other stakeholders over the coming months to assess how it might expand oversight to corporate owners of cotton farms.

“It’s immensely reassuring to see the standard has been implemented, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem,” said Better Cotton CEO Alan McClay. “We need to look at due diligence beyond the farm gate … because some of the practices that have been identified are in violation of our mission, even if they’re outside of the strict standard.”

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The organisation has faced heavy criticism as a result of the investigation. Zara-owner Inditex slammed what it characterised as a too-slow response in a letter sent to McClay earlier this month. In its report, Earthsight said the fact farms covered by its investigation had received Better Cotton certification didn’t reflect an issue with compliance, but problems with the standard itself.

Better Cotton said it is continuing ongoing work with Brazil’s cotton-growing association (which manages the Better Cotton certification process in the country) to strengthen its sustainable cotton standard in line with the auditor’s recommendations.

A further update is expected in May following the completion of a consultation with local communities.

“We’re not complacent,” said McClay. “There’s work to do on due diligence and to make sure partnerships are effective.”

Learn more:

Are H&M and Zara Harming Forests in Brazil?

Cotton linked to environmental and human rights abuses in Brazil is leaking into the supply chains of major fashion brands, a new investigation has found, prompting Zara-owner Inditex to send a scathing rebuke to the industry’s biggest sustainable cotton certifier.

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