How cotton growers can help clean up the clothing industry

Australian cotton has a reputation for being ethically grown by farmers who are aware of environmental sensitivities – but over 90% of that raw cotton leaves our shores and follows a convoluted path around the world before being sold back to us as finished clothes and other products.

The global fashion supply chain, which deals with fibres like wool and cotton, is said to be rife with slavery, and a lack of transparency often makes it difficult to tell who has made clothes, and how much they were paid.

So what can be done to fix it? According to a group of Australian cotton researchers, it might help to start with the growers instead of the consumers.

The approach might have relevance for all Australian farmers.

A research project, funded by the Cotton Research and Development Corporation and available on Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s website, outlines seven ways Australian cotton farmers can help their plants turn into ethically made clothes.

“In fashion and textiles, all the research has been focussed on brands procuring stuff in global supply chains: how do you try and get back from who’s making the garments, to where the fabric comes from, and then the yarn, and then at the very end furthest from you, the farm,” says project lead Professor Alice Payne, now dean of the school of fashion and textiles at RMIT University.

“Because our project was funded by the cotton industry, naturally we took a completely different approach by starting from the cotton industry.”

Australia is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, exporting an average of $1.65 billion worth of cotton per year – although droughts mean that production varies a lot for the thirsty crop.

The researchers, who were based at QUT, University of Technology Sydney, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, examined labour conditions, investigated case studies and interviewed key stakeholders across the cotton supply chain.

They’ve come up with seven steps the cotton industry can take to clean up its act:

  • Downstream due diligence: suppliers taking responsibility for the social and environmental costs of their products down the supply chain.
  • Extending Australian cotton’s sustainability credentials, such as the “chain of custody” checklist, to include more information.
  • Encouraging transparency as both an incentive and a measure of accountability.
  • Using technology to trace products through supply chains.
  • Reconsidering when manufacturing should be onshore or overseas.
  • Developing strategic partnerships with other supply chain actors.
  • Collaborate with worker-driven initiatives to find things that will benefit them.

“In an environment where there’s an absence of regulation, what are the other leverage points that a whole heap of different actors can pull together?” summarises Payne.

Truck filled with bales of raw cotton
A road train headed to Collarenebri, New South Wales. Credit: victor pashkevich / Getty Images

These are all initiatives that the cotton industry could take, before they’re obliged to by increasing regulation.

“Government regulation is increasingly strengthening in particular areas, very much from that perspective of the actors at the end of the chain in terms of their due diligence requirements and responsibilities,” says project collaborator Associate Professor Erin O’Brien, from QUT’s School of Justice.

O’Brien cites Australia’s and the UK’s Modern Slavery Acts as examples of this.

“What we’re trying to argue in the suggestions for people at the other end of the chain is that, as time goes by, we actually might take the view that we need to regulate from both ends. And this is a way of being ahead of the trend,” says O’Brien.

Payne says that growers can access new, premium markets by focussing on green and ethical buyers, and they will increasingly feel pressure to do this.

“They really need to be able to go: ‘Well, how do we have all our ducks in a row? How do we have the right systems and data and information that can flow through the chain that can bring give those assurances when people require them for their reporting?’,” says Payne.

“So there are two angles on it: there’s the market opportunity, but then there’s also the risk of markets being closed to you if you don’t have all your information to hand.”

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