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Sarah Lozanova headshot

Cotton Production Transparency: Unraveling the Mysterious Supply Chain

By Sarah Lozanova

It's often said that the fashion industry is one of the dirtiest in the world, second only to big oil. Although this statement may seem impossible, there is some validity to it. This is especially true when it comes to raw materials.

Cotton is a particularly demanding crop with a complex supply. In fact, 20,000 liters of water is often consumed to cultivate the cotton to produce just one T-shirt or pair of jeans. Most cotton is grown on irrigated land to satiate the needs of this thirsty crop, compromising water security in some areas. Although a mere 2.4 percent of cropland is dedicated to cotton, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of the world's pesticide and insecticide use, respectively. Cotton is not the villain, though, as synthetic fibers have their share of sustainability issues as well. In addition, the dying process for cotton and synthetic fabrics alike is highly chemically intensive.

The good news is that there is a growing awareness of the sustainability issues that plague the fashion industry. "Years back, the industry had a feeling that what they don’t know is alright," Anita Chester, head of sustainable raw materials for the C&A Foundation, told TriplePundit. "Everyone is making an effort now to understand what is happening and then to stand up and face it. Brands realize it does matter and are bringing more visibility. It is a topic of discussion in many multi-stakeholder groups. This is a trend that won't go away."

Levi Strauss & Co. demonstrated a strong commitment to transparency when it conducted the first Product Lifecycle Assessment in the apparel industry of its jeans in 2007. This information is posted on the company's website and explores everything from cotton production to consumer care. It also helped LS&Co.to understand the sustainability issues related to its products and enabled the company to take more effective action.

The lifecycle assessment, for example, revealed that 68 percent of the water consumed by Levi's jeans is related to cotton production. To help make LS&Co. products more sustainable, the company is working with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a nonprofit organization that brings a variety of stakeholders in the cotton supply chain together for sustainable cotton production.

Such alliances mean that LS&Co. actually collaborates with competitors to shift the global cotton market. The San Francisco-based brand has also used product labels to reduce wasteful consumer behavior. All LS&Co. jeans now contain care tags reminding customers to: “wash less, wash cold, line dry, donate or recycle.”

LS&Co. took things a step further with the Wellthread Collection, which features Water<Less fabric that uses 65 percent less water in the dying process and 50 percent less for finishing. The entire product is made with closed-loop recycling in mind, and the collection is made in factories that invest in the wellbeing of its workers.

The North Face also took a leap in sustainable sourcing when it introduced the locally-grown hoodie. All the cotton was grown within 150 miles of the corporate headquarters in California, by farmers that use biologically-based techniques to protect land, air and water resources.

"We decided to take a bale of beautiful heirloom cotton and see what we could make with it," Adam Mott, director of sustainability at the North Face, explained during a 2014 interview with TriplePundit. "This created more collaborative, deeper connections with the artisans involved in the textile production and inspired us to think about reducing waste in the design process for this exclusive collection."

Although the brand wasn't entirely successful in meeting its 150-mile goal for the initial hoodie, the project provided valuable lessons in materials sourcing. The North Face expanded its locally-sourced Backyard Project capsule collection this year to include men’s T-shirts, as well as both men’s and women’s full zip and pullover hoodies, all sourced and manufactured within the U.S.

Another organization to follow is the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), which was founded on the premise that "organic cotton production delivers impressive environmental, social and health benefits, enhances responsible business practices, and builds prosperity." The OCA was created in 2014 to ensure that these conditions are understood and improved in a coordinated way, and to grow the organic cotton sector as a whole. Founding members include C&A, the C&A Foundation, H&M, Eileen Fisher, Kering, CottonConnect, Textile Exchange and Inditex.

Cotton has a very complex supply chain, with little traceability as of now. A majority of cotton is grown in developing countries. Lack of transparency in cotton production leads to decreased product integrity, impacting the environment and the well-being of many people.

"Transparency is extremely important because it brings accountability into the system," Chester explained. "It’s a difficult supply chain with many layers.

"Cotton goes through many hands, from traders to spinners, and there are all sorts of transactions that happen. In the current form, it is not a very transparent supply chain.

"Cotton also travels across borders. Very often what is grown in India will end up in China or Bangladesh."

Less than 1 percent of cotton is grown organically, and this number has actually decreased in recent years, Chester told us. She cites lack of adequate compensation to organic farmers for their efforts as a major driver in this downward trend.

"A brand will create a contract with the first tier in the supply chain and agree on a price with certain raw material costs," Chester explained. "The farmer is the weakest link, and the value doesn’t flow down to the farmer in the way [it] should. People with more clout in the supply chain will maintain higher margins. C&A  Foundation wants to collaborate with brands and other stakeholders to make sure farmers are paid a fair price. Brands can help by giving strong signals in their supply chain and incentivizing farmers to grow organic cotton."

Lack of access to non-GMO seeds is also an issue in organic cotton production. As a result, Chester is working with universities and agricultural programs to support breeding programs and to link various stakeholders.

India grows 75 percent of the world's organic cotton, Chester noted. "It’s risky for the industry to have all the organic cotton grown in one area," she explained. "We support projects in China, Pakistan and elsewhere, to diversify where cotton is grown and to help farmers to build their capacity."

As these multi-stakeholder groups work to create greater transparency and more sustainable supply chains, some brands are collaborating to find solutions. Concern about water scarcity, pesticide contamination, farm worker conditions and social justice are bringing brands together to find answers.

The solutions to complex issues are not simple. But brands like LS&Co., the North Face, the Better Cotton Initiative, the C&A Foundation and the Organic Cotton Accelerator are helping the issue of supply chain transparency in the garment industry to advance.

Image credit: Flickr/Kimberley Vardeman 

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova