The Sustainable Cotton Guide: What Is It & How To Source It
The Sustainable Cotton Guide
• Is Cotton Sustainable?
• What is Sustainable Cotton?
• Typical Cotton Farming vs Sustainable Cotton Farming
• Cotton Traceability for Brands and Manufacturers
Since 5000 BCE, cotton has been used to create clothing and other textiles. Today, the ever-growing demand for cotton products means that sourcing sustainable, compliant cotton is of the utmost importance for brands and manufacturers worldwide.
If you’re concerned about the impact of your cotton, but don’t know where to start, this is your guide to getting started. Read on about cotton’s impact, sustainability, and how to ethically source cotton without sacrificing profit.
Is Cotton Sustainable?
Cotton – like most materials and ingredients – can be sustainable when the right processes and practices are put in place (and consistently followed). Unfortunately, to keep up with demand, not-so-sustainable techniques are often employed. For example, intensive cotton farming might help farmers produce more cotton, but in the long run, without sustainable agricultural practices, it can lead to soil degradation. Eventually, this creates less usable land for farming and poorer cotton quality.
Another issue with cotton is the high use of pesticides and other chemicals. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers erode the soil and contaminate water. These chemicals often remain in the finished cotton garment, even after several washes. Plus, some dyes used to color the cotton textiles are toxic, leading to the contamination of communities near dyeing sites.
Growing cotton also requires huge amounts of water. In fact, estimates put cotton growth at using 20% of the world’s irrigation water. This can put a burden on communities where water is scarce. Further water waste happens during manufacturing, making the fashion and textile industry one of the main polluters of water at all stages of the value chain.
Last, but certainly not least, cotton production has been known to be riddled with human rights abuses. So much so that international regulations have been put in place to encourage sourcing cotton from more sustainable, ethical sources. The most notable of these regulations is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which bans any cotton-related imports from the Uyghur region of China from entering the US because of Uyghur Muslim forced-labor practices.
What is Sustainable Cotton?
The three main components of sustainability are the environment, society, and economy. Sustainable cotton, then, is cotton grown in a way that has a more positive impact on the environment and people while still keeping up with demand.
Using smart agriculture techniques allows cotton farmers to make a profit while also paying laborers fair wages. Manufacturers and brands can also prioritize sourcing from sustainable cotton producers to ensure their products are as sustainable as possible. Sustainable cotton is all about looking to the future while also meeting the needs of today.
Typical Cotton Farming vs. Sustainable Cotton Farming
These days, cotton farmers are under immense pressure to produce more cotton to keep up with demand. This has led to certain issues that impact the environment, economy, and community in negative ways. Some of the issues with cotton farming include:
• Intensive farming techniques that lead to soil erosion
• Water waste, which puts a strain on water-scarce areas
• Harmful pesticides and fertilizers that pollute groundwater
• Unfair labor practices, such as forced labor and child labor
• Poverty-debt cycles that trap many cotton farmers in high-interest loans
In contrast, sustainable cotton seeks to address and multi-solve these issues. Some of the ways sustainable cotton farming differs from traditionally grown cotton include:
• Sustainable farming techniques that improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
• Better management of water resources
• Reduced use of pesticides and fertilizers
• No forced labor or child labor
• Smarter payment and loan processes for smallholder cotton farmers
Cotton Traceability for Brands and Manufacturers
Whether you sell cotton clothing, textiles, or furniture, you’re probably wondering how to make sure that you’re procuring sustainably sourced cotton. In the past, brands and manufacturers have relied on third-party certifications to ensure their cotton was sustainable and compliant. However, these spot audits are no longer enough to prove sustainability nor compliance.
One of the key ways to ensure sustainable cotton is through traceability. Traceability, simply put, is the tracing of materials or goods throughout an entire supply chain – from source to shelf. With cotton, this means from farm/farmer through production/manufacturing to shelf and sale. For brands or manufacturers that are upcycling cotton products, traceability would also include tracking the journey of upcycled materials and the percentages of recycled materials in final products.
The typical value chain for cotton looks like this:
1. SOURCE/HARVEST. The cotton is harvested by machinery to collect the fiber and seed.
2. TRANSPORTATION. From there, the cotton is transported to a cotton gin.
3. GINNING. The cotton gin separates the cotton fibers, which are used to produce textiles, from the seeds.
4. CLASSIFICATION/QUALITY INSURANCE. Cotton is classed according to the FDA standards, accounting for cotton fiber length, strength, uniformity, and micro-ware.
5. WAREHOUSE. The cotton bales go to a warehouse, where they are sold.
6. SPINNING. The cotton then goes to a spinning mill to be spun into cotton thread.
7. MANUFACTURER/SUPPLIER. The cotton thread is transported and sold to enterprises or factories through a manufacturer or supplier.
8. FACTORY. If being used for products or clothing, the cotton is taken to a factory to create textiles or manufacture the final products.
9. SHELF/BRAND. Brands will purchase cotton materials or products from a third-party or privately owned factory to then – you guessed it – sell!
Traceability software, such as BanQu, helps enterprises trace their cotton all the way back to the source, even when the cotton is procured internationally. This is an essential step in sourcing sustainable cotton. With traceability, you can ensure that farmers are receiving fair pay as well as avoiding harmful chemicals and reducing water waste. BanQu enables you to more easily multi-solve your sustainability pain points, without sacrificing production or profits.
Source Better Cotton, Today
From water overuse to pollution to forced labor, the negative impact of traditionally grown cotton is costing brands millions in compliance fees and bad press. Sustainably sourced cotton is better for the environment, economy, and community (and your business).
With the BanQu traceability platform, you can ensure you’re sourcing sustainable cotton. BanQu helps you track your cotton through every step of the supply chain, from farm to ginning to warehouse to store. So you can ensure your cotton is truly sustainable and compliant, without sacrificing growth. Chat with us today to learn more!