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69 Percent of Denim Brands Don’t Know Their Cotton’s Origin, Study Finds

A new report from Cotton Diaries, an organization dedicated to making cotton supply chains more sustainable, exposes just how little brands know about the fiber’s origin.

The “Who Made My Cotton” report compiled research from denim design consultant Anne Oudard, Simply Suzette founder Ani Wells and Cotton Diaries founder Mazria Lanfranchi, who surveyed 27 freelance consultants, designers and CSR managers working for brands throughout the denim industry to find out what they know about the cotton in the jeans they’re making, and what remains a mystery.

Despite the industry’s advancements in tracing technology and other transparency initiatives, much of the earlier parts of the denim supply chain remains opaque. According to the report, 30.8 percent of participants “sometimes know who the farmer is,” while 69.2 percent said they never do.

That one statistic provides much-needed insight into how large-scale human rights breaches like the Xinjiang scandal can emerge. Back in December 2020, evidence indicated that more than half a million ethnic minority workers in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are victims of forced labor, picking cotton by hand through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme. Brands scrambled to trace their cotton to prove in court they weren’t affiliated, while many of the region’s customers quickly cut ties. As recently as last month, two Japanese apparel giants, Sanyo Shokai and TSI Holdings, which maintains the Japanese license for brands such as Jill Stuart, New Balance Golf and Stüssy, pulled their sourcing from the region.

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Better traceability can help mitigate instances of abuse, and new laws may make that reality happen sooner than later. According to the Cotton Diaries report, the introduction of due diligence legislation sets out to hold brands accountable for the blind spots in their supply chain, forcing them to monitor the working conditions at every level of the chain and help fund costly sustainability initiatives for the betterment of society.

Championing better practices

By gaining a better sense of the working conditions in the field, brands can leverage their larger budgets to make a difference. For example, rather than place the responsibility of attaining organic or fair trade certifications on the farmer, brands could support them and share the cost of those certifications.

Last year, Australia-based denim brand Outland Denim launched the Supply Network Intelligence System, a program that seeks out and works to resolve instances of deliberate exploitation, slavery and unsafe working conditions. In partnership with IT company Precision Solutions Group (PSG) and sustainable denim brand Nudie Jeans, the program set out to support workers at Turkey’s organic cotton farms, which supply both brands with the cotton they use to create their denim. Through the initiative, the brand piloted the Sag Salim program, which offers a grievance channel and capacity building for cotton farmers in Turkey.

“Knowing where your cotton comes from is just the start,” said Leisl Ohai, social and environmental impact manager for Outland Denim, in the report. “This knowledge has to be combined with robust due diligence in those regions as well. We see traceability as a step to guide and enhance our due diligence processes, but not enough on its own.”

The report questions what is done with the knowledge once a brand is able to identify where their cotton is coming from, and insinuates that, while knowing the origin is important, it doesn’t provide insight into key elements such as fair pay, safe working conditions and more.

Beyond brands, mills are also leading their own initiatives for better transparency into the farm. The report found that 34.6 percent of respondents are partnering with mills working with regional cotton programs, including Milliner Organic, an initiative fueled by Pakistan-based denim company Artistic Milliners. The program launched in October 2020 to improve visibility and women empowerment throughout the cotton supply chain and mitigate extortion throughout Pakistan’s Rahim Yar Khan district of Punjab. The program satisfies 13 of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and especially benefits women cotton pickers, who are provided with life skills training, access to an alternative livelihood program and better picking resources in partnership with WWF Pakistan.

Roadblocks to transparency

Though the report found that 92.7 percent of participants would like to trace their cotton back to the farm level, they find it challenging to do so. In large companies, workers operate in silos, meaning a designer could create a piece with a certain sustainable fabric in mind, but once it gets through to production, the material has been swapped out for a less expensive—and less sustainable—alternative. Other times, there are so many individuals within the brand involved in making a pair of jeans—and not one person who knows everything that went into its construction.

While smaller companies theoretically have a better exchange of information, they’re met with unique challenges of their own—typically around a lack of resources. The report noted that many small teams have just one person in charge of corporate social responsibility, forcing them to triage the sustainability flaws in their supply chain.

“It would be awesome if there were some kind of governmental subsidies so that smaller companies could participate in these [certification] projects,” Zoé Daemens, sustainability manager at South America-based apparel brand Kuyichi, said in the report.

Government assistance is a top request among players throughout fashion’s supply chain. This fall, it was the focus of a virtual Kingpins24 discussion that centered on water stewardship practices. Taimur Malik, a consultant for regenerative business development at Pakistan-based denim manufacturer Stylers International and Kingpins24 speaker stated that farmers are “essentially left to their own devices,” and need the government’s help to ensure water-saving methods are implemented.

Similarly, ahead of this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, colloquially known as COP26, sustainability experts urged legislators to incentivize the industry’s shift to lower impact processes. One of those experts was Dilys Williams, founder and director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, a research center based at the London College of Fashion, who co-authored an open letter to officials at the conference.

“Until legislation supports restorative practices, all of the ingenuity in the world will be outsized by a lack of will to change at world government level,” she said.