Traceability of the Cotton Supply Chain

Published
, 10 minute read

Quick summary: Traceability and Transparency are very important in the cotton supply chain to achieve sustainability in the textile and fashion industry. To ensure a sustainable supply chain, the brands ought to know where their product came from, under what conditions they were manufactured, who created them, and the impact on the environment.

Cotton Facts 

Do you know? 

  • An 8,000-year-old commodity, which takes over 200 days to grow is the world’s number one fabric contrary to making a large impact on its environmental footprint.  
  • 60% of the world’s cotton is produced by smallholder cotton farmers. 
  • 90% of the estimated 100 million smallholder farmers live in developing countries, growing crops in less than 2 hectares. 
  • Thirsty crop, accounts for 2.6% of the world’s yearly usage of water and 10% of pesticides
Beautiful cotton harvest shots shows elements involved in cotton harvesting and the plant itself.

Cotton became the most used fabric in the world because of its nature, characteristics and price. Cotton fibers can produce a wide variety of fabrics from lightweight laces to heavy velveteen, and products ranging from home furnishing, woven fabrics, clothing, cottonseed oil and industrial uses. It provides such variety because of its durability and abrasiveness. Advancement in cotton technology has led to the development of stain, water and dew resistance cotton. Shrinkage and wrinkles have also been gradually reduced over the years. Cotton can soak in other materials and die (color) easily, it’s easily washable and can be ironed at high temperatures.

Cotton Market 

1The cotton market is projected to register a CAGR of 4.1% during the period 2022-2027. The demand has decreased by 11% on account of covid supply chain disruptions. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China are the largest consumers of cotton with global consumption of 65%. 

In 2019, world production of cotton was valued at about USD 46 billion, while global trade reached USD 15 billion. The cotton industry employs an estimated 150 million people across 75 countries. 

A journey from field to fabric | Cotton supply chain

Planting 

Cotton seeds are planted after monitoring the soil temperature right at the end of the spring season. Seeds are planted when the soil becomes warm enough for germination and crop establishment. In the modern sustainable and regenerative agriculture module, these seeds are accompanied by cover crops and refuge crops supporting pest control and extreme winds. 

Growing 

Cotton growth is a slow process; it takes about four months of periodical watering, after which plants start to grow, from developing into a flower then ripening into a fruit, later theses split open to expose the cotton bolls. 

Harvest 

After most of the bolls are fully opened, agronomists check if the cotton is ready to be picked after which it’s harvested either by hand or mechanically and placed into large modules which are transported to the Cotton Gin factories. The most important thing in harvest is the timing, it has to be done before the change in weather and winds which could damage the cotton crop. This is where the pre-processing ends. 

Ginning 

It’s a processing unit specifically designed to remove trash and cottonseed from the actual lint. Lint is the cotton fiber used for further processing, cotton from farmlands is first dried to reduce moisture content and further passed to remove foreign particles. This enhances the quality of fiber. Lint is then bundled into a bale for further processing. 

Classing 

Here the bales are classified depending on standards, fiber strength, length, color, uniformity and fineness. All these can be found in different bales or a single one. Uniformity in bale length, fiber fineness and strength would determine various quality aspects and the type of yarn that could be produced. Less white and impurities will procure less value than pure white and fewer impurities. 

Yarning and seed processing 

Cotton farming has a dual product outcome. The classified lint from different bales is blended to form a unified fiber property and passed on to carding and ring spinning machines to form the desired thread thickness to develop a yarn. These are later rolled into bobbins, tubes and rolls for woven fabrics. 

The other product is the seed that the cotton crop produces with fiber. A large amount of seed is produced while producing the cotton crop which has various applications. Crushed oil is the most valuable of them all, these seeds are used for poultry feed, mattress stuffing, industrial products and most importantly used as a raw material for the planting of cotton crops. 

Woven and knitted fabrics 

These threads are passed through different techniques and machining to finally form a fabric. It includes processes like dyeing, printing finishing (press and shrinkage), etc. 

Types of cotton 

Cotton types are classified based on fiber strength, quality and character. 

Prima cotton:

It has lustrous fibers with soft and long staples and lengths better suited for fabrics, yarns and hosiery. It is cotton of the highest quality, hence the most in-demand for its fading and wrinkle-resistant quality. The other variety of this cotton is the Egyptian cotton grown in the Nile River valley in Egypt. 

Upland cotton:

Medium or short-staple type which has the most used because of its ability to blend with other fibers. These contribute to 90% of the world’s cotton. They are also known as Coarse cotton. 

Organic cotton:

cotton produced without the use of chemicals and with organic plant seeds is classified as Organic. 

Challenges in the Cotton Value Chain 

  • Origin 

 Lots of steps and processes in the cotton supply chain have led to various issues relating to quality and sustainability in cotton production. Both organizations and customers want to know about the origin and quality of their cotton. Traceability in such a complex supply chain is a daunting task, it makes it difficult for sustainable improvements.           In the spinning mill various cotton types are mixed to form the desired quality, these multiple sources cannot be properly traced back to their origin. Product origin and the conditions under which they are created cannot be traced. Farming practices 

The global average water footprint of seed cotton is 3.644 cu. metrics per ton. The water usage and pollution levels are high. 

There is inappropriate and excess use of pesticides and fertilizers. This contributes to water pollution, GHG emissions, decreased soil fertility and affects human health. Cotton cultivation causes soil erosion, resulting in loss of soil biodiversity. 

  • Unethical Labor practices 

Child labor and dangerous working conditions prevail in a few countries. Lack of ethical labor practices with no fair trade persist. 

  • Market uncertainty for farmers 

Many cotton farmers live below their poverty line unable to meet their basic needs. They also incur high levels of debt due to high input costs. 

Price volatility and government subsidies result in an uncertain market for farmers. 

  • Fraud and quality dilution 

Unscrupulous producers mix varieties of cotton, lowering their purity and quality origins. Mislabeling of brands is prevalent in a few countries. 

  • Climate Impact 

Extremities in weather and carbon emissions have an impact on cotton yield. Usage of GMOS makes 66% of total cotton production resulting in concerns about seed diversity and ecological balance. 

Cotton Supply chain Traceability 

Traceability and Transparency are very important in the cotton supply chain to achieve sustainability in the textile and fashion industry. 

To ensure a sustainable supply chain, the brands ought to know where their product came from, under what conditions they were manufactured, who created them, and the impact on the environment. Traceability establishes credibility to claims and proof of sustainability.

All these challenges are due to lack of transparency and visibility in the cotton supply chain. Traceability not only helps in tracking the origin of the product but also impact the product has on the environment and the people of the society. Traceability drives Sustainability, a vital necessity for the textile industry.

Farm to Fabric Traceability 

Suppliers are the most important stakeholders, they determine the quality of the outcome. Therefore, selecting a proper supplier has to be done through stringent due diligence. The supplier has to provide transparency relating to the raw materials and processes involved. Trust has to be developed by providing satisfying documentation (type of seed used, chemicals used if any, fertilizers used, sustainable methods used, etc) of every step and process that is followed. 

There should be an implementation of traceability tags after harvest, which should match with the bale labeling while ginning. 

Spinning mills receive the barcode labeled bale, which is transferred to the spinning assembly, where it’s segregated and relabeled based on the original bale number, the raw weight of cotton input and weight of yarn output. 

While fabric weaving, the same procedure of weight of input raw materials and output weight of the cloth has to be recorded. Standard tracking numbers linking to the yarn labeling have to be followed. 

Final products are linked to both cloths labeling as well as the order number (invoice). The weight of the final product has to be recorded. 

Every process that the cotton production takes, is linked to its previous step, which makes it easier to track and minimize tampering and false documentation of data within the above procedures, various verifications options like ground-level Audit, in-person spot checks, image evidence, etc provide for the provenance of quality and procedures followed. 

Even though there have been advancements in cotton traceability, many producers still follow the manual traceability solution. This might be because of a lack of knowledge, financial support, or convenience in the conventional methods. A big market that contributes to the global carbon footprint has to adopt traceability to improve and monitor sustainable practices. Organizations that source sustainable cotton, should source through proper due diligence ensuring traceability and sustainability.

Blockchain Traceability for Cotton Supply chain  

Blockchain technology helps to trace the cotton fabric down to the farm and ensure transparency in the cotton supply chain. Being a complex and fragmented supply chain, blockchain helps to establish a digital identity for the product and provides the farm-to-fiber traceability across the entire supply chain. 

The Blockchain traceability benefits 

  • Brands can validate claims of their products and showcase them to the consumers 
  • The farm to fibre story engages the consumer building trust in the brands 
  • Farmers get access to agronomy advice ensuring improved yields and better market reach. 
  • Digitization of the supply chain ensures higher productivity and reduces costs. 
  • Immutable digital ledgers ensure a single source of truth mitigating any fraud and quality compromises in the supply chain 
  • Collaborative shared platform ensures mutual trust and helps auditability of data for regulatory compliance. 

TraceX’s FOODSIGN is a digital traceability platform that provides end to end traceability bringing visibility and transparency to the cotton supply chain. Traceability drives sustainability of the product. This ensures a competitive edge to brands to showcase their sustainable claims.

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