We all know the horror stories of the cotton industry -- poverty prices and wages, exploitation, pollution levels that outrank most other industries, waste, to name but a few.
The recent release of the PAN report Sustainable Cotton Ranking Assessing company performance is an illuminating insight into how major brands are addressing these problems and worryingly, not many are doing enough.
This is frustrating because, unlike other elements in their supply chains -- e.g. buttons or zippers -- industrial scale, commercial, ethical and sustainable cotton supply chains exist right now and their work is already changing the industry for the better. What is holding things up is demand from brands -- and from consumers -- for their product.
We started our brand, Mighty Good Undies because we wanted to prove that producing at the highest ethical cotton standards is both profitable and possible at an industrial scale for a high street market. Our men’s and women’s underwear is made from certified organic and fairtrade cotton -- the strictest cotton standards available -- sewn by people who earn a living wage.
In our experience, purchasing sustainably sourced cotton isn’t hard -- it is simply a matter of doing the research and finding the right supplier amongst a small (but growing) number of producers who are certified or work to a sustainability based standard.
We source from India -- the world’s largest producer of organic and Fairtrade cotton -- using two of the best known suppliers: the Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills who make our underwear and their partners Chetna Organics, who grow the cotton.
In brief, Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills (RCM) is a family owned and operated dedicated organic and fairtrade cotton textile producer based in Kolkata India. The RCM factory is certified under the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) and adheres to strict worker safety standards and meets requirements for a living wages. It’s cotton supply partner, Chetna Organics, was launched in central India in 2004 as an ethical supply chain initiative based on sustainable agriculture principles such as organic and Fairtrade and non-pesticide management.
Chetna’s farmers produce organic and Fairtrade certified cotton with no use of child labour, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and GMOs. For these sales, they receive the Fairtrade Minimum Price and the Fairtrade Premium to invest in productivity and quality improvements, business support, and various community interventions in the three regions. Since Chetna Organic is a farmer owned organisation, farmers have a direct role in decision making during production and marketing processes, as well as during the distribution and allocation of the premium.
The thing that really sets our supply chain apart from brand based ‘sustainable cotton’ programs or even the “Better Cotton” initiatives is that it is fully certified under the Fairtrade Cotton Standard (FLO) and the Global Organic Textiles Standards (GOTS) -- from seed to garment. What this means in practice is that we have a whole system that tracks, and documents, our supply chain from the cotton growers to the manufacturing stage to our store cupboards using only organically grown, and pesticide free cotton.
Each stage is required to implement a long list of ethical labour standards and world's best practice environmental standards -- for example banning the use of toxic dyes and requiring water effluent management in the dye house -- and each is independently assessed by a third party NGO or expert assessor and reported against publicly available standards. It recognises that ethical fashion is much more than just where the cotton is sourced form.
Working with them is essentially like working with any other supplier -- a mass of emails and phone calls about samples, production timelines and prices etc… Most days we don’t notice the fact that the cotton is ‘sustainable’.
What is different is that production cycle is slower to compete as Rajlakshmi rejects the ‘fast fashion’ ethos of lightening quick turn around, and choses to work on a more human time scale (like the industry used to). We also pay a Fairtrade premium to the farmers for their investment fund. No, it isn’t going to be as responsive or as cheap as a ‘fast fashion’ but we reckon it is a small price to pay for respecting the people who make our undies. That said, the higher cost of cotton is predominantly related to its small scale. Boost up demand, increase scale and, like its fast fashion counterpart, we can bring down the price of organic and Fairtrade cotton.
Our supply chain is a living, breathing example of what the garment industry can look like if we place the values of ecological sustainability, social justice and economic relationships based on respect at the heart of what we do. They are already operating, willing and are able to accept and deliver orders from brand buyers.
We think it is a puzzle as to why brands continually find excuses not to make the swap to the kinds of supply chains operated by Rajlakshmi and Chetna-- unless of course you factor in their rapacious demand for low prices and high profits.
So we will provide an alternative to consumers and hopefully, someday, the brands who scored a “fail” in the PAN Report will catch up and make the swap too.