From the clothes we wear to critical medical equipment, cotton is the most widely used natural fibre in the textile industry today, accounting for almost one quarter of all fibres manufactured worldwide.
Cultivating cotton provides livelihoods for 100 million households, of which 90% are in lower-income countries. An additional 350 million people support cotton production and basic processing by working in transportation, ginning, baling, and storage.
Cotton farming has a complex relationship to climate change. Cotton yields rise in concert with carbon dioxide levels, as it promotes photosynthesis and plant growth. But cotton plants also need specific temperatures and moisture levels to be productive, which could be disrupted by climate change.
Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) emerged in the cotton sector more than 20 years ago to help address social and environmental challenges in the sector.
Our research shows that growing VSS compliance can help cotton producers build resilience to climate change by conserving water, protecting soil health, and undertaking adaptation measures. And in many cases, farmers that adhere to VSSs can benefit from higher prices and incomes when compared to conventionally produced cotton.
More than 450 million people
Cotton production directly supports 100 million households in 75 countries and indirectly employs an additional 350 million people.
USD 3 billion to 5 billion
In 2019, at least 2.5 million farmers produced 6.24 to 6.46 million tonnes of VSS-compliant cotton lint with a farm gate value of USD 3 billion to 5 billion.
39% annual growth
Between 2008 and 2019, VSS-compliant cotton experienced a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39% to 40%.
USD 1 trillion
Raw cotton underpins the global textile sector—it is estimated to be worth nearly USD 1 trillion and growing.
VSS-compliant cotton accounted for at least 25% of global production in 2019.
VSS-compliant cotton grew at a CAGR of 39% to 40% between 2008 and 2019 but may be slowing, as its CAGR dropped to between 28% and 29% from 2014 to 2019.
Consumers in Europe and North America are driving demand for sustainable cotton.
Top cotton-consuming brands and companies reported that as of 2020, 85% of their cotton was more sustainably sourced cotton, either compliant with a VSS, in transition, or recycled.
VSS-compliant cotton production volumes in 2019
The top standards, by 2019 production volume, are Better Cotton, Cotton made in Africa, Organic, and Fairtrade.
How can VSSs affect farm gate prices?
Growing and selling VSS-compliant cotton can lead to up to 50% higher prices for farmers than those selling conventional cotton. However, this doesn’t automatically translate into higher profits due to the rising costs of production and certifications costs. Low farm gate prices mean cotton farmers in developing countries cannot achieve a decent standard of living while bearing the rising costs of production.
Distribution of cotton production in the top 10 producing countries in 2019
In 2019, about 92% of VSS-compliant cotton came from Africa, led by India, China, and Türkiye. Africa produced about 4% of total VSS-compliant cotton production, mainly in Tanzania, Uganda, and Benin.