The Cotton Supply Chain: A Farm-To-Closet Journey

Cotton is the most used fibre in the textile industry. Yet, its production often needs more traceability and comes with first mile sustainability challenges that cascade on downstream players (e.g., ginners, mills, fashion brands). This post will unravel some insights into the cotton value chain and highlight its limitations.

The Cotton Supply Chain

Where Is Cotton Produced?

China, India, and the United States are the world’s central cotton-producing countries. Asia seems to be the leading continent, with significant cotton production in Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Regarding Africa, Mali is the top cotton producer, followed by Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.

The Cotton Production Process

Harvesting is only the first of the several cotton production steps needed to turn the white crop into the coloured fabrics everyone wears. Around 160 days after plantation, the white cotton flower bud opens and reveals a green pod, a.k.a. boll, containing cotton seeds. This is a sign for farmers that the time is ripe for picking. Depending on the country you grow cotton in, harvest season varies. For instance, September is peak time in Uzbekistan, while in the Ivory Coast, farmers wait until mid-October. Once the balls have been picked by hand or machines, they’re put together in massive modules weighing up to 25,000 pounds. These are then delivered to the gin, where the cotton lint is separated from the seeds. Next, the lint is pressed into 500-pound bales and shipped to a textile mill, making it into yarn. The latter is the raw material used for fabric manufacture.

First Mile Problems Associated With Cotton Production

Most cotton-related troubles happen within the first mile of its supply chain.

Environmental and Health Impact of Cotton Production

Cotton is the thirstiest crop in the world; making a single cotton T-shirt drinks up to 2,700 litres of water! On top of that, the harmful chemicals used in cotton production are washed away and end up in waterways. More specifically, cotton plantations tap into 24% of the world’s insecticides. Additionally, when growing cotton, nearly 1 kg of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare of land. Exposure to a high concentration of pesticides is poisoning cotton farmers. A study conducted in Côte d’Ivoire found cotton smallholders to suffer from acute poisoning symptoms such as headache, cough, skin rash, etc. 

Growing organic cotton would be an eco-friendly and safer alternative, as far as it’s done up to GOTS standards. But what is GOTS organic cotton? This type of cotton is farmed without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Another environmental benefit of farming GOTS-certified organic cotton is that all production wastewater is treated, thus minimising pollution. Additionally, according to a recent life cycle assessment (LCA), the manufacture of organic cotton fibres uses 91% less water than non-organic ones. However, to verify whether farmers are growing organic cotton, GOTS requires them to prove it by submitting farm-level information (e.g., amount and type of agricultural inputs added). Yet, this can be time-consuming and labour-intensive when relying on paper-based record keeping and is one of the reasons why, nowadays, only 0.95% of the cotton produced worldwide is organic. 

Unfair Cotton Farming

Fertilisers are not the only cotton-induced threat to people’s health. Harvesting cotton sometimes comes at the expense of human rights. As reported by the Environmental Justice Foundation, 200,000 Uzbek children are forced to harvest cotton in the Ferghana region yearly. Pressured by governments to meet specific quotas, local administrators are forced to close schools during harvest season so that kids can join their families at the farm. Besides working in poor conditions, children are physically punished when they do not meet their daily quotas. Apart from driving child labour, cotton farming is often not fairly remunerated. For instance, Uzbek adult workers receive their money via corrupt state banks that take their cut and send them their low residual wages after months. Fairtrade is committed to preventing these human rights violations from occurring throughout cotton production. Once again, only an efficient collection of first mile data will make this happen.

Conclusions

If you want to know how our first mile tracking technologies can solve them, don’t miss out on the second part of this blog. Special thanks to our sustainability copywriter, Antonio Salituro, for these insights. Similar articles can be found on the Farmforce “Resource Page”.

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