Voluntary Sustainability Standards in South Asia

Author: Vivek Voora, Sara Elder, and Florencia Sarmiento

Cotton is a key sector in South Asia, driving economic growth and employment while supplying 30% of the world’s cotton lint that ultimately goes into goods like textiles and medical supplies. At the same time, cotton cultivation has led to significant environmental degradation and persistent social challenges that undermine the sector’s long-term sustainability.

This research from IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives examines these key sustainability issues against voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) like Organic, Fairtrade International, Better Cotton, and the Responsible Environment Enhanced Livelihoods (REEL) Cotton Code. It explores how VSSs interact with the existing policies and trade relationships in the region.

Focusing on major cotton and textile producers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the report shows that these VSSs require farmers and textile facilities to adopt more sustainable practices with potentially far-reaching benefits. These include improvements in agrochemical use, water conservation, and the incomes of South Asian cotton farmers and textile workers.

The policy landscape could be strengthened to take full advantage of VSSs in the cotton sector—for example, through national policies and legislation that advance environmental and social sustainability in the sector, as well as trade agreements that can provide a basis for regional collaboration and cooperation.

Voluntary Sustainability Standards in South Asia: A Focus on the Cotton Sector in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka concludes with clear recommendations for policy-makers and VSS bodies to collaborate and take action to support regional and national policies, address key sustainability challenges in the cotton sector, and boost intraregional cooperation and trade.

Recommendations for VSS-bodies:

  • Develop targeted guidelines and training opportunities for farmers on VSS-compliant practices
  • Improve assurance systems and product traceability requirements to increase trust in verification and certification processes
  • Provide a platform for regional dialogues and action on cotton among different stakeholders
  • Build partnerships between standard-setting bodies, as well as with private initiatives to increase their impact and efficiency

Recommendations for policy-makers in South Asia:

  • Update sectoral, environmental, and labour policies to support best practices in the sustainable production of cotton and VSS compliance
  • Strengthen sustainability provisions in trade agreements
  • Generate domestic and regional demand for VSS-compliant cotton
  • Establish organic seed banks
  • Use targeted promotion of VSS compliance as a tool to improve agricultural practices in priority regions