The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a mainstream initiative that works with many farmers using genetically modified (GM) cotton varieties, unlike the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which can only be used for textiles made with at least 70% certified organic natural fibers. BCI’s adopted position of being “technology neutral” means they’re unlikely to take a stance against GMO cotton anytime soon, which is a major divergent point between BCI and GOTS cotton.

By 2024, BCI farmers are phasing out class 2 pesticides deemed most hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). Producers must also have a plan to phase out pesticides defined as carcinogenic, reprotoxic, or mutagenic, but there is no fixed timeline for doing so. On the other hand, to bear the GOTS seal, cotton may not be grown with any synthetic pesticides.

Organic-approved fertilizers are the only ones in use for organic or GOTS cotton, while manure is not encouraged by BCI as a primary option for fertilization. Only on large farms are fertilizer needs assessed with soil tests and applied using precision agriculture technologies. While BCI farmers in Pakistan used 17% less synthetic fertilizer than similar farmers in the region, there’s nothing to suggest this is the case in BCI’s other 23 countries of operation.

At first glance, it seems like BCI cotton isn’t all that different from conventional cotton. Unlike organic cotton, BCI and conventional cotton don’t require “seed to shelf” sustainability efforts throughout the entire supply chain—from growing and ginning to spinning and shipping. While some BCI farmers may use integrated pest management (IPM) and cover crops to replace the need for pesticides and fertilizers, there’s no way for consumers to trace BCI cotton to the farms employing these.

In other words, there’s really no way to know whether organic practices are behind any particular BCI-marked eco-friendly towel or robe. However, it’s better to think of BCI cotton as conventional cotton, with a tiny bit of extra attention paid to things like pesticide use and soil health. By adopting a farmer-centric approach, BCI aims to improve the livelihoods and well-being of cotton farming communities through training and education, decent work principles, and social standards. BCI also works with field-level partners, suppliers, manufacturers, brand owners, donors, governments, and civil society organizations to promote sustainable cotton production and address climate change, biodiversity, water stewardship, and forced labor and child labor issues in the cotton sector.

Overall, while BCI cotton may not be as stringent as GOTS cotton in terms of sustainability standards, it is still a step in the right direction towards more sustainable cotton production and better working conditions for farmers.