The cotton production process is controversial. The Xinjiang Scandal, in late 2020, only served to add fuel to the fire: reports surfaced of forced labor in the cotton production process. Prior to this, Xinjiang was responsible for 85% of the cotton produced in China, and about 20% of the world’s cotton.
Some of the largest global apparel companies released statements saying that they either did not source cotton from the Xinjiang region, or were putting an end to it. The United States also brought into effect the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which banned any imported items made with Xinjiang cotton.
Two years later, cotton transparency still remains an issue. In one survey by the Sourcing Journal, respondents working in the apparel industry were asked if they knew where the cotton they used in production originated. The results showed that 30.8% of participants said they “sometimes know who the farmer is,” while the remaining 69.2% said they were not aware of the source.
Many roadblocks exist for full transparency in the cotton supply chain. For international apparel companies, the workforce is often disconnected or “siloed”, making end to end traceability difficult. There are so many people involved in the production of one article of clothing that it becomes impossible for any one individual to know about all the materials that went into that clothing item, or where those materials originated.
Issues also exist on the supplier side of the equation. Traceability of cotton is different in every country. For example, the United States and Brazil have systems in place allowing them to trace any cotton fiber back to the farm where it was grown. In other countries, this is not the case: farms in West Africa or China have little to no protocols in place. Additionally, one cotton bale has cotton blended together from 300 to 500 different farms, making traceability even more difficult. Middlemen, like cotton agents and merchants add another layer to the whole process, further reducing visibility. This current system desperately needs increased transparency so that there are no human rights violations, environmental degradation, or laws being broken.
Some companies are indeed fighting against this current system. In late 2020, a Pakistan-based denim company named Artistic Milliners launched a new initiative to improve visibility in the cotton supply chain as well as empower women. Similarly, the manufacturing giant Interloop has recently launched their own traceability solution, allowing for cotton to be traced from farm to the end of the production process.
While these programs are promising, there is still more that can be done. Instead of waiting for each individual supplier to set up traceability measures, large apparel companies should take charge and start to implement programs based around cotton sourcing. Governments can also step in to help, putting new laws in effect that forces cotton producers to improve and standardize their practices. These changes will allow for better cotton visibility down the road for both brand, and consumers, and will hopefully put an end to violations such as the one that took place in the Xinjiang region.