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Transparency’s Biggest Obstacles, According to Mills and Spinners

Though traceability has become one of the denim supply chain’s top buzzwords, the industry still has a long way to go before it can achieve full transparency from farm to fabric. Much of the data provided encompasses information on garment manufacturers (tier 1), fabric weavers (tier 2) and yarn spinners (tier 3). Tier 4 data, which includes information on cotton farmers, is even more difficult to obtain.

A new #WhoMadeMyCotton report from denim consultant Anne Oudard, Simply Suzette founder and sustainable denim specialist Ani Wells, and Cotton Diaries founder Mazria Lanfranchi gathered information from 10 global mills and spinners to understand why this data is so hard to come by. What they found was that many brands are simply not asking their suppliers for this intel.

“Because of the vast amount of resources it takes to reach full cotton traceability, if no one asks for it, mills are not prioritizing it,” the report stated. But as traceability continues to gain even more traction, the need for this hard-to-find data becomes even more critical.

Companies highlighted in the report include Artistic Milliners, Bossa, Soorty Enterprises, Interloop Ltd., Pure Denim, Global Denim, Orta Anadolu, AGI Denim, Candiani Denim and Cone Denim.

The challenges

Currently, cotton traceability levels vary by country. While the U.S. and Brazil provide Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) numbers that can trace the fiber back to the gin or farm, the report states that other regions like West Africa and Tanzania feature little to no traceability. Additionally, one cotton bale can contain cotton from 300 to 500 different farmers, depending on the size of the farms from which the cotton is sourced.

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Traceability becomes more convoluted when factoring in blending. Even in garments containing 100 percent cotton, the fibers are blended from different batches to balance higher quality (and more expensive) crops with a lower quality (and less expensive) batch. While this alone can make tracing more difficult, the report found that mills are also motivated to withhold the information from brands, as identifying all of the differing origins could make them question their quality.

Middlemen such as cotton brokers, agents and merchants also add another opaque layer to the supply chain. Many mills work with middlemen to secure the best rate, as the price of cotton regularly fluctuates, and cotton buying can represent 55 to 60 percent of a mill’s total expenses.

Like most sustainable innovations, implementing traceability requires a significant financial investment, which usually falls on those at the beginning of the supply chain, as passing these costs along to the customer makes it harder for mills to stay competitive.

“When we asked, ‘What if a billion-dollar fashion brand would finance these programs?’ many mills seemed confident that it would enable them to staff up and extend these practices to their whole cotton sourcing,” the report stated.

The solutions

Mills are taking proactive steps to find solutions in the information gap.

Of the 10 mills polled in the report, eight either set up direct-to-farm programs in their own countries or invested in traceable cotton technologies that connected them with farmers.

Artistic Milliners developed the Milliner Organic Project in 2020 to promote visibility and workers’ rights throughout the entire scope of the cotton supply chain, from picking to spinning. The direct-to-farm sourcing model makes it easier to trace the supply chain and create a more secure market for farmers. To-date, the program works with more than 2,000 farmers across 9,300 acres of land to support the organic cotton transition. Farmers involved in the project have already seen the benefit of participation, with greater yields and reliable support. The crop now has the in-conversion badge from the third-party certification firm Control Union (CU), which confirms the transition to organic farming.

Jack & Jones, the Danish apparel brand owned by Artistic Milliners’ longstanding partner Bestseller, will be the first to debut the crop in a denim collection scheduled to land in stores in December. However, brand partnerships aren’t always the strategy of choice for mills. The report noted that some are hesitant to form brand partnerships out of fear of becoming beholden to a brand and the prices and requirements it may set.

Soorty has also supported farmers through its Soorty Organic Cotton Initiative (SOCI), which it developed in partnership with WWF-Pakistan, the Department of Agriculture Extension, Balochistan, and with support and input from the Laudes Foundation, which provides partners with philanthropic capital, expertise and connections. Through the program, Soorty aims to bring organic farming practices and a better way of life to farmers in the Balochistan region of Pakistan.

Others, such as Bossa Denim, Candiani Denim and Interloop Ltd., also have their own methods for working directly with farmers to ensure their wellbeing and enhance transparency into their products.

In 2020, Cone Denim became the first denim mill to partner with Oritain, a product and supply-chain traceability specialist that uses forensic science and statistics to identify “origin footprints.” To date, Oritain has mapped more than 90 percent of the world’s cotton. The company’s method combines forensic science and statistics to detect naturally occurring elements in the cotton itself, eliminating the need for additional foreign tracers such as spray or particles. Soil composition and other environmental factors give the cotton an inherent ‘fingerprint’ specific to each location. Oritain calls this the Origin Fingerprint.

Orta Anadolu and Pure Denim use Fibretrace, a blockchain-based solution that embeds luminescent pigments into fabric, which can be read and tracked at every stage of the supply chain. Using the technology, the mills can receive farm data and measure the carbon sequestration on the field.

Looking ahead, Artistic Milliners formed a partnership with Pakistani tech company Crop2X to collect a large scope of soil data and found that farmers have increased their yield by 10-15 percent. Soorty’s Sekem initiative helps revitalize land and create a thriving agriculture program through biodynamic farming. The project is taking place in Egypt, with hopes of expanding to Pakistan. Candiani developed Blue Seed, a patented hybrid seed that produces an extra-long tailor-made fiber produced with less water. It aims to continue developing more seeds in the future.

The next #WhoMadeMyCotton report will focus on cotton merchants’ role in the denim supply chain and cover their projections for the future of cotton traceability.