Preserving the Fabric of Sustainability: Urgent Actions Needed to Safeguard Cotton Supply Chains

Editorial TeamEditorial Team
December 11th, 2023
12:55 PM

Fashion brands and retailers are at a pivotal point, as a new study signals the risk of irreversible harm to livelihoods, environments, and future production unless significant improvements are made in their relationship with cotton supply chains.

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Fashion brands and retailers face a critical juncture in their relationship with cotton supply chains, with a new study warning of potentially irreversible damage to livelihoods, environments, and future production if improvements are not made.

Tamar Hoek, senior policy director of sustainable fashion at Solidaridad Network, emphasizes the possibility of achieving net-zero or even net-positive cotton despite the challenges posed by fossil-fuel-based fibers. In contrast to the growing popularity of synthetic fibers, Hoek argues that addressing ecologically damaging farming practices, such as the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, holds greater potential for mitigating climate change and reversing soil damage.

The focus on smallholder growers is crucial, as many live in poverty due to fluctuating cotton prices and struggle to adapt to production shocks caused by factors like drought, flooding, or inflation. Hoek urges brands and retailers to take responsibility by knowing the origin of their cotton and ensuring fair compensation for farmers, addressing a widespread lack of awareness in policymaking circles where cotton is often overshadowed by more prominent commodities.


The Cotton Crisis Unveiled

While polyester dominates the global fiber market, farmers in the top cotton-producing countries, including Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United States, are sounding the alarm about climate change threats. A potential death spiral looms, with shorter growing seasons, diminished cotton quality, and financial struggles for farmers, exemplified by the devastating impact of a "monsoon on steroids" in Pakistan.

Hoek stresses the need for diverse stakeholders, including brands, retailers, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and governments, to play active roles in averting a crisis. Responsible purchasing practices, long-term offtake agreements, and regenerative agriculture projects can enhance farmer resilience and contribute to addressing the environmental impacts of conventional production methods.

Although some notable brands have initiated regenerative agriculture projects, the output remains a fraction of the massive annual cotton production for textiles and fashion. Hoek calls for increased efforts from all stakeholders, emphasizing that the clock is ticking. Without changes, cotton farmers may be unable to produce, leading to a textile industry dominated by synthetic materials—an outcome with far-reaching consequences.



Which Brands Are Sourcing Cotton Responsibly?

  • Patagonia: Known for its strong commitment to environmental and social responsibility, Patagonia has been a leader in sustainable practices, including responsible cotton sourcing.
  • Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher has been dedicated to sustainability, and they have taken steps to source organic and responsibly produced cotton for their clothing lines.
  • Stella McCartney: This fashion brand, led by designer Stella McCartney, places a strong emphasis on sustainable and ethical practices, including responsible sourcing of materials such as cotton.
  • Levi's: Levi Strauss & Co. has been actively involved in sustainable initiatives, including their commitment to sustainable cotton sourcing through programs like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).
  • H&M Conscious Collection: H&M has made efforts to incorporate sustainable practices into their business, and their Conscious Collection often includes items made from organic or sustainably sourced cotton.