Measuring Sustainability

"There are two option facing every one of us - to continue doing business as usual or face up to the realisation that if we do that we face the possibility of permanently damaging the planet we share forever and at the cost of our very own survival... Facing up to this challenge will require partnership and transparency and a will to make it work. Without the last one it will be a very hard and long journey."

Hugo Lemon, Woolworths,
South Africa

While an organic certificate guarantees certain things, it is not an holistic sustainability indicator, especially in areas of social and economic impacts but also in wider environmental issues such as soil fertility, water consumption and climate change.

Sustainability scorecards

Background Textile Exchange’s sustainability scorecards (comprising of key performance indicators covering soico-economic and environmental themes) have been created to help organic cotton farmers identify key issues for sustainable development. To this end, the "KPI program" has focused on farmer self-assessment; however, the scorecard also helps cotton producers communicate the main issues for the long term environmental, social and economic sustainable development of organic cotton growing and potentially to hold conversations about these issues with brands and other stakeholders. A growing number of producer groups are using ‘self-assessment’ in this way and implementing their own improvement programs based on their scorecard results. We produced a summary report offering a bird’s eye view of the scorecard ‘results’. The report explores the collective environmental, social and economic perceptions made by organic cotton farmers.

What we have learned from evaluating farmer scorecards:

  • Organic cotton farmers generally felt positive about their ability to farm effectively and tended to score themselves well in the agronomic indicators.
  • Organic cotton farmers tend to be able to provide for their families food and nutritional needs
  • There is evidence of social development – particularly by African farmer groups, although it is important also to appreciate the contribution that ‘Fairtrade’ certification makes.
  • Indicators of education for children painted a mixed picture; with good examples of schooling and promotion of an education for girls (but not everywhere).
  • There are challenges securing natural resources; water, energy and the preservation of biodiversity are issues for many farm groups. These issues will be rooted in geographic and economic conditions of the regions and not specific to organic cotton farmers.
  • Scores for ‘investment in health care’ tend to reflect weak infrastructure and poor public investment in policy in these regions – rather than a situation unique to organic cotton farmers.
  • Despite the better profits thought to accompany organic production, economic development is by far the most ‘problematic’ area for organic cotton farmers. Scores here highlight issues around farmers’ perception of their ability to invest in their businesses; evidence that growing organic is not currently acting as the panacea for improved incomes for all.


Update As discussed above the Textile Exchange scorecards are currently used by farmer’s to assess themselves against key performance indicators of sustainability. The scorecards provide a ‘yardstick’ for producer groups to compare themselves against, and initiate a cycle of improvement. The ‘perception factor’ is important in that it gives insight into the way a Group interprets, evaluates and acts on specific issues. Thus, the scorecards play four additional functions that compliment an assessment of impact. These functions are:

  • to facilitate dialog within the farm group (participation)
  • to assess progress made by the group (evaluate the past and the present)
  • to act as a tool for identifying new ways of addressing issues (plan the future)
  • to act as an educational tool for sharing views, communicating and building knowledge

In this sense, the scorecards are a powerful tool that help a grower community pull together in pursuit of shared goals.

Farmers learn about issues that they never thought their production behavior could influence. In West Africa, farmers do not normally give themselves the opportunity to evaluate their achievements in groups. Trainings about KPIs give them the opportunity to learn how they can periodically evaluate their achievements as a community and set up new targets. In this exercise, they can be assisted by an external person or by someone from the group who understands the tool and who can moderate discussions in the way to reflect the opinions of the group or the community”.   

Silvere Tovignan, Textile Exchange, Regional Director Africa (leading on KPI program)

After two years of research, development, trialling and practice, we can see that there are clear merits associated with our sustainability scorecards (see 'available downloads' to access our report published last year) but we also see areas for refinement if we want to see sustainability indicators reach a wider audience and provide a more robust evaluation; namely rationalizing the number of indicators and reducing their subjectivity.  


Next steps As part of our revised program we are ensuring our KPIs align, where relevant, with the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)  and other globally significant agendas. We will also be working closely with a small number of organic cotton producer groups based in different geographical locations to ensure our approach is pragmatic and adapted to ‘real life’ conditions.


Indicator Clusters To give you some idea of the indicators we will be focusing on going forward we provide a high level overview below. As part of our improvements we will ensure our indicators can be easily adopted by stakeholders working with other initiatives aimed at making cotton production more sustainable. Further, we aim to make our indicators ‘measurable’ and comparable, not always an easy task particularly where social indicators are concerned. Indicators will align with MDGs and other globally significant programs. Work is also underway to better interpret results against the geographical and socio-demographic norms.

 Indicators will capture:

  1. Economic resilience and development
  2. Social well-being  e.g. Food Security, Education, Gender Equality
  3. Agro-ecological e.g. soil fertility, conservation and biodiversity
  4. Water use and water quality
  5. Climate change

Indicators will favor ‘measurability’ and ‘comparability’ and we aim to expand our performance monitoring to further gauge and report on the positive impact of organic cotton systems. We will however, continue supporting farm groups who wish to use our current sustainability scorecards and know there are some groups in their third year of using the scorecards as part of their performance improvement program.

We look forward to sharing further progress with you soon.


Further Downloads:

>> Assessing sustainability