Traceability in the cotton supply chain is a topic will grow following the growing demand for transparency of product information and in Europe in relation to the Digital Passport report which should accompany finished products as early as next year.
However, tracing the history of cotton is very difficult, both due to the global dimension of the supply chain and due to the lack of homogeneity of the information collected, when available, as there are no shared standards among the producing countries. Furthermore, ‘any bale of cotton from a specific producing country, China for example, may contain cotton from other countries’. And above all, ‘the lack of transparency represents an advantage for fiber producers, as demonstrated by the Indian organic cotton fraud of 2020 and as demonstrated by the opacity of information associated with Chinese cotton from Xinijiang.’ A study by the British University of Sheffield Hallam also reached the same conclusion.
‘Distinguishing cotton from Xinjiang is very difficult,’ said Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, director of the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights recently. “The cotton supply chain is surprisingly complex. Important processing places such as Bangladesh do not have their own cotton production and are dependent on imports. Raw cotton is sold in bales in Dubai. Along the supply chain there are various steps where the fibers can mix“.
However, to learn more about the history of Xinjiang cotton, we suggest reading the United Nations report Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China of 2022. Of course, the traceability of cotton is not only aimed at identifying the presence or absence of fiber obtained from the exploitation of forced laborers, let’s say that this is one of the most striking cases and which has prompted many brands to declare their commitment not to use that material. In fact, tracing means documenting the characteristics and passages undergone by the material and which concern both the environmental and social impact of the lot in question, from cultivation to logistics, up to the industrial processing phases.
In recent years, some important tracing initiatives have been launched and others will have to be born.
Of course, due to technological conditions and the digitization of flows, it is ‘easier’ to trace American or Australian cotton than Asian and African cotton, partly due to the fragmentation of the fiber supply chain, partly due to the absence of shared instruments and standards, partly because it is preferred not to trace. But it is a problem that will have to be answered, the risk for users of doing green and social washing, perhaps in good faith, is too high.
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