Cotton On recognised at global retail awards

Australia’s largest global retailer, Cotton On Group, has taken the Responsible Retailer Initiative of the Year award at the 2019 World Retail Awards due to its program sourcing sustainable cotton in Kwale County, Kenya.

The event celebrated retailers that are driving innovation and impacting the retail sector globally.

According to former chief executive of Myer Bernie Brookes, it’s “great to see an Australian company awarded for its significant success and impact overseas”.

Cotton On’s Kenya Cotton Program was launched in 2014, and aims to improve the livelihood of the Kwale community by increasing agricultural productivity in the region and creating a “pathway out of poverty”.

While the program started with only 15 farmers attached, it has now grown to more than 2500, with 10,000 forecast by 2020.

“The challenge in Kenya, in general, was [that] the country had little if any engagement with the many ethical and sustainable sourcing cotton programs operating across the globe,” Cotton On Group’s chief financial officer, Michael Hardwick, told Inside Retail Weekly.

Another important factor was the lack of education at both high school level and beyond, Hardwick explained, with education key to changing the way people operate.

“The cotton industry in Kenya as a whole, and in Kwale, had declined significantly. Farmers were living in poverty in the region. They were essentially growing to provide at most the food to go on their plates,” Hardwick said.

“Cotton was reintroduced to give them the opportunity to pull [themselves] out of poverty. So right from the beginning of the project, as farmers joined, they started growing cotton and they were trained in ethical and sustainable cotton practices.”

Hardwick pointed out that a surprising development is that the Kenyan government recently visited the program and publicly stated it would replicate the model in order to reinvigorate the country’s cotton industry.

‘Today’s customer cares’

While the path chosen by Cotton On led to recognition at the event, it hasn’t always been easy, Hardwick said.

“It’s a continuous road to improvement. It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. While we’re proud of what we have achieved to date, we know that there is always room to continue to evolve our programs,” he said.

“We know that our responsibility goes far beyond selling clothes, and we endeavour to use the size and scale of our operations to have a positive impact on people, communities and the planet.”

The business isn’t only committed to improving the quality and sustainability of cotton, however, having raised over $90 million in the last two years to provide education through its Cotton On Foundation arm.

The purchase of a Cotton On Foundation product will see 100 per cent of the proceeds go to education, while the group has also raised funds for Carrie’s Beanies 4 Brain Cancer charity, as well as the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand’s Pink Shirt Day.

“Today’s customer cares about where and how the products they purchase are made – that’s not just clothes,” Hardwick said.

“Businesses are responsible for telling their customers the story behind the product – the environments in which their products are made, the people who made them and the materials that are used.

“We’ve taken an ethical and sustainable approach to our operations since day one and today, more than ever, we are taking our customers on that journey.”

A continuous journey

The increasing push by retailers to adopt sustainable practices as a result of changing consumer expectations is a continuous journey, though is one Cotton On says it is firmly focusing on.

The retailer has removed plastic shopping bags from its stores globally, and replaced them with recyclable paper bags – saving an estimated 38 million bags annually – while encouraging customers to bring their own bags, or offering a Cotton On Foundation tote bag that furthers the company’s charity work.

“Our aim is to reduce the use of bags, and our customers have been really enthusiastic about the move, which is really exciting,” Hardwick said.

“We’re also looking at the little things that we can do at our global support centre, such as eliminating 2500 coffee cups a week by replacing them with reusable cups for our team and visitors.

“It’s no surprise that our industry is facing some massive challenges and is having to look at itself like never before. For retailers, it’s a constant balancing act of bringing customers great products and new experiences, and ensuring responsibility across the supply chain.

“As retailers, we need to ensure we’re looking actively and purposely around us – and then use that awareness to inform how we can make a positive difference and demonstrate our values.”

Jo-Anne Hui-Miller & Dean Blake

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