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Let’s Put an End to Cotton’s Scapegoat Status

As 2023 gets under way, we continue to deal with many problems from last year. Let’s see: we have inflation, uneven demand, mixed retail sales, high inventories, uncertain consumers, and trade friction, just to name a few headwinds. But we also have thorny issues, like sustainability, that continue to nag the industry.

It’s curious to hear from executives when the topic of sustainability arises. The most noteworthy observation is that everyone defines “sustainability” differently. Actually, that’s nothing new. But it begs the question, if folks can’t decide on a standard definition, then, lacking a common framework, sustainability may not be appropriately represented in the market. More on this later.

One observation that keeps coming back from many brands is that the root cause of the industry’s environmental problems begins with cotton. It’s a familiar claim. Folks have blamed cotton for years, often making it the scapegoat. Even so, what gets lost in the industry’s trashing of cotton is that an average brand sources products from numerous countries supported by supply chains often more than 15,000 miles long. Let me explain.

Easy target

It’s not hard to blame cotton when baseless claims so easily stick. For instance, cotton abuses the soil. Cotton also sucks up more water than is in the entire Pacific Ocean. And let’s remember that cotton consumes more pesticides than all the oil produced in the Middle East while acting as a magnet for insects that destroy food crops. And, of course, all of this is readily supported by peer-reviewed, scientifically conducted research—readily available on Wikipedia. Wow.

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I’m being facetious, of course. But somehow the marketing powers have conspired to shift the blame for environmental harm onto cotton and away from core sourcing and logistics. But the question is, why? Because it would make little sense to blame your business model. Indeed, why spend millions on building a brand only to self-destruct? Only some people can own Twitter, after all.

Cotton, in turn, needs help defending itself. The industry is represented by competing interests, so criticism can be levied by the apparel industry with the support of at least a group or two in the cotton community.

For example, a brand may make a sustainability claim that it only uses organic cotton because such cotton is grown using less water. The fact that this claim is bogus is irrelevant. The high ground has already been established with unsuspecting consumers. Moreover, organic farmers love it.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of cotton farmers growing their crops with GMO cotton are kicked to the curb, by default, relegated to harvesting “Frankencrops.” Sigh.

Welcome to the desert of the real

Even so, the reality remains that globalized supply chains create copious quantities of carbon, waste and chemical pollution. Anyone in the trade who’s honest will have a hard time disputing that. But acknowledgment is beside the point. It’s easier to paper over the issue by making questionable claims concerning cotton.

Blaming cotton for the apparel industry’s environmental problems misses the point. Look in the mirror: the real trouble begins with how the industry functions with these global supply chains. To criticize cotton farmers is a boorish attempt to deflect attention away from the industry’s central problems encapsulated in its supply chains.

So many groups—NGOs, think tanks, associations—are working diligently to set the record straight, make a difference, and change an industry. Please make no mistake; these are honest brokers. But unfortunately, they often end up attacking each other, questioning their findings, positions, and claims. Brands, in turn, are often caught in the crossfire and, in some cases, paying the tabs for these groups simultaneously.

But from the brand perspective, the costs are justified to wrap a brand in the purported safety of membership. Safety in numbers, but also a degree of deniability. The message goes like this: “Sure, we belong to [pick an organization], but we don’t set policy. We only provide advice.” And there we go, industry denials. Yikes, it’s complicated; it’s easier to just blame cotton.

What’s in a name?

This brings us back to global supply chains. For example, the United States has traditionally been the largest exporter of cotton globally, while at the same time being one of the largest buyers of clothing made with that cotton. So, many times, clothes purchased in the United States have been made using long, carbon-intensive supply chains. Such supply chains could stretch from the cotton fields of West Texas and Alabama to the textile mills of Vietnam to the cutting rooms of Bangladesh.

It’s dizzying, but here’s the rub: the industry has hidden behind the opacity of these supply chains for so long. Transparency? That was something for looking out of windows, not supply chains. Besides, it was better to avoid seeing how the sausage was made.

Well, times are changing. Transparency has become a thing, along with sustainability. But, of course, some pressure has come from consumers, while even more pressure has come from inside the industry. Both forces combine in a push-pull manner, squeezing brands to disclose where their products come from and how they are made.

So, what can be done instead of me whining about everything? It’s hard to imagine brands unwinding supply chains that have been in place for decades. After all, the habits and practices of conducting business take a lot of work to break. More pointedly, though, ending such practices is expensive. In the case of a low-margin business like apparel, it is damn near impossible to afford. Until, of course, we have a wake-up call from an unforeseen event. Like a pandemic.

A higher authority

Here’s one idea that gets discussed occasionally but now may make more sense than ever: government-mandated content labeling. Call me a socialist, but tackling sustainability from within the industry increasingly feels like an exercise in futility. So instead, we must go above the industry and establish some basic identity requirements. Then, we can turn to the government as a solution, like the FDA requires that essential ingredients and nutritional items are listed on food packaging.

Let’s be honest: everyone knows where their products are made. In turn, such transparency could help the industry measure its environmental footprint. Under a government program, a standard set of labeling guidelines could be adopted, incorporating input from all over the industry. It would also provide a valuable mechanism for many NGOs and associations to coordinate on sustainable policies.

OK, so I’m a kook. But you know what? It’s time to get off cotton’s back and stop trying to pass the buck. We can only define sustainability once we provide more supply chain transparency. Many companies do this already. It’s time for all brands to embrace a more comprehensive approach. And we’ll need a third party to incorporate such an effort. I nominate the government.