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Four areas of concern in the cotton supply chain

It takes a lot to transform raw cotton into your favorite cotton shirts or sheets. In any complex process, there are plenty of places where things can go awry. And the cotton supply chain is no exception, with unethical practices, poor oversight, and uninformed producers threatening the integrity of cotton along the way. As an informed consumer, you want to be smart about the companies you support and avoid those with production issues. We’ve taken a look at four areas where things can go wrong in the cotton supply chain – and how to choose products that avoid them.

Irresponsible Farming

Cotton production begins with cotton farmers and the choices they make. Cotton can be a tricky crop, and irresponsible farming practices can have a big impact on both the quality of the cotton and the local environment. A responsible farmer will work to conserve water, decrease soil erosion, decrease fossil fuel usage, and minimize their carbon footprint – all while maintaining the quality of their crop. Look for companies that openly discuss their cotton farming practices and prioritize a commitment to ethical, environmentally responsible farming.

Unethical Labor Practices

Unfortunately, unethical and even criminal labor practices remain a problem throughout the cotton supply chain in less developed parts of the world. In Uzbekistan, the government illegally forces citizens – including children – to pick and process cotton crops. And in Bangladesh, the death of thousands of garment workers in the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy shone a spotlight on dangerous working conditions around the world. Garment workers are often young, vulnerable women facing low wages, long hours, and few rights. Choosing brands and companies that either produce in countries with strict labor laws or are endorsed by a fair trade organization is a great first step in supporting ethical labor practices.

Quality Dilution through Mixing

The cotton fabrics in your favorite products can come from one of two distinct species of plant – upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), which is made of short fibers that offer reliable quality at an affordable price, and “extra-long staple cotton” (Gossypium barbadense), which produces higher-quality Egyptian and pima cotton. If they’re pure, both Egyptian and pima cotton are renowned for their superior strength and softness, but unfortunately, purity is a big “if” for many items that claim to contain extra-long staple cotton. A recent test revealed 89% of cottons sold as Egyptian or pima are, in fact, made of inferior cotton blends. Unscrupulous producers mix cottons to save money, but you want to be sure you’re getting what you pay for. Look for a company that tests to prove not only the strain and origins of its cotton, but that inferior quality cotton hasn’t been added to the mix.

Deceptive Mislabeling

Cotton labels can be confusing – and unethical companies are quick to take advantage of this fact. Egyptian cotton is especially problematic, because any cotton grown in Egypt can technically be labeled "Egyptian cotton" — even if it's not the high-quality extra-long staple cotton of the same name. Misleading labeling preys on smart consumers who know to look for one of these types of premium cotton. It’s important that you look for more detail than just “100% cotton” if you want the best fabric – quality brands will identify the type of cotton and how they can prove it’s pure. It can be nearly impossible to know the true makeup of a fabric without having insight into the entire supply chain, so look for companies that provide as much information as possible.

So how can you know for sure that a cotton company has a clean supply chain? Choose one that prioritizes transparency at every stage of the process. PimaCott’s commitment to proven pure pima cotton begins with the ethical practices of our San Joaquin Valley farmers and continues through our testing and verification at every stage of the cotton supply chain. Which means you can be sure you’re getting the guaranteed pima cotton products produced under the most rigorous ethical, environmental, and quality standards.