The (Near) Impossibility of Organic Cotton Traceability


When it comes to the complexities of deeming a product organic, most people don’t take into consideration what goes into making an organic apparel certification. Most people don’t even know that when something is certified organic, it doesn’t mean that the carbon footprint has been reduced or that workers were treated ethically. The point of origin for a finished product is what’s deemed the most important and does not include the processing, manufacturing and finishes.

In labeling a garment, more often than not, WHERE a product is manufactured and the NOT WHERE the fabric came from is what is taken into account and there’s no labeling of threads, dyes, zippers and buttons.

So how can we know how ethical, sustainable or environmentally “good” something is?

It’s not easy.

For all intensive purposes, let’s consider the traceability of something as commonplace as cotton. Start with something that most of us have at least a few of – the ubiquitous t-shirt or a pair of jeans. Let’s try to go backwards from the cotton field to your closet.

textile waste

Textile Exchange reports that organic cotton is currently grown in 23 countries. Most production is taking place in India, Syria, China, Turkey, the United States, Tanzania, and Uganda, although countries in West Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are also well-established organic cotton producers. But most manufacturing happens elsewhere in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and the new manufacturing frontiers of Africa and Ethiopia.

So once the cotton leaves the mill, say in Tirupur, India and then enters the flurry of production in a place like Rana Plaza in Bangladesh it’s hard to know what fabric came from what country, let alone what farm. In a presentation about apparel production after the Rana Plaza building collapse, Sarah Leibowitz from NYU Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights stated, that, “Indirect sourcing is the routine practice of subcontracting, often through purchasing agents and in a manner that is not transparent to buyer or regulators.

cotton bailer

Eric Henry, founder of Burlington, North Carolina-based TS Designs, a wholesale, custom printed apparel company, primarily selling t-shirts founder tells me it’s “impossible” to find out where the cotton in a simple t-shirt comes from especially when it’s from a big brand like H&M, the top company buying organic cotton according to Textile Exchange’s 2013 Organic Cotton Report.

Consider this: according to The Guardian, “7.6% of H&M’s cotton was organic, an industry insider for The Guardian estimated H&M’s overall cotton use to be around 200,000 tonnes a year.

“The way the rules and regulations go are that if it says ‘Made in the U.S.,’ it’s because it was just the last place it was put together. This is a pretty big black eye for the fashion industry because it’s impossible to follow the traceability because you can’t verify the supply chain,” He says.

Henry adds that his company is able to trace back as TS Designs sources North Carolina cotton directly from local farmers he knows. These same farmers along with Henry’s Cotton of the Carolinas cooperative have also been instrumental in inspiring the production of the first certified organic cotton in the state.

where your clothing

Cotton traceability is becoming a hot topic.

The 2014 State of Sustainability Initiatives Review which charted the development of identity cotton initiatives, has estimated that by 2020 organic and standard compliant cotton could account for a quarter of global production. EcoTextile News recently reported that an extensive new 50-page report to be published by MCL Global on sustainable and identity cottons “has bemoaned the ‘frightening’ lack of market penetration made by such cottons and called, among other things, for greater consumer education about the benefits of sustainable textile fibres.”

Pioneering companies like TS Designs and their Cotton of the Carolinas co-operative, Honest By which was the first company in the world to share the full cost breakdown of its products with a 100% transparency policy, and Everlane who works hand in hand with their factories as well as requires stringent workplace compliancy paperwork.

Consumers who are lacking the tools to properly track back their textiles are demanding more from companies in light of a number of tragedies including the Rana Plaza disaster last year that killed over 1200 workers in one building.

But with traceability comes the consequences of viewing an entire industry inherently built on effective marketing, cheap labor, and rife with a history of environmental degradation.

With these new lenses on, the reflection of what we as consumers are supporting becomes clear that it’s time for a new future for fashion.

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.

Images: TS Designs