I would like to discuss partnerships in the context of helping retailers and other members of the supply chain to understand the basics of cotton production and trade – production regions, lint characteristics and quality, global trade flows, roles of each member of the supply chain – and how all actors one of the world’s largest supply chains do their part in delivering the right product for the ever-changing fashion trends.
I have conducted extensive research and have spoken to many members of the cotton supply chain. One thing that I have found is that the majority of retailers don’t have a basic understanding the global cotton supply chain. Many don’t know any suppliers beyond their first tier cut and sew operators or how and where cotton is grown. They tend to have short-term purchase orders with the cut and sew facility, while some may have non-contractual relationships with mills. Very few have direct relationships with spinners.
Yet many of these same brands have established sustainability goals such as sourcing increasing amounts of sustainable cotton, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or water consumption, or banning unethical cotton from their supply chains. They would also like to track sustainable cotton along the entire chain – from farm to end products.
Few will succeed without a basic understanding of this extremely complex supply chain and strong transparent partnerships with key supply chain members.
To reach these sustainability goals retailers should begin by mapping their supply chain. The retailers will then need to gain a commitment from top suppliers to meet their sustainability expectations.
Each supplier will have different opportunities to improve their environmental and social footprints. Production will be different from spinning (e.g. electricity), which will differ again from mill and dyeing (e.g. water) or cut and sew (e.g. labor). When different members of the supply chain work together to prioritize efforts and share costs and benefits equitably should lead to a stronger partnership and add longevity to the partnership.
When it comes to traceability, retailers must focus on getting spinners to segregate and report the cotton that ends up in their products. Spinners remove the lint’s origin identity and mix it with several sources of cotton lint when they spin cotton into yarn. The retailers must work – most likely through their mills – to gain the commitment of spinners to identify the origin of each bale that feeds into a lot of yarn.
The cotton industry and individual actors within the cotton supply chain could benefit from sharing knowledge and perspectives – and possibly exploring supply chain partnerships. By developing strong partnerships, all supply chain actors can improved capacity building, greater efficiencies and other shared benefits. These results in turn can lead to a more secure and predictable base of suppliers/buyers, improved contract sanctity, lower risks associated with supply and demand volatility, and an improvement in the overall well being of the cotton industry (and avoiding losing market share to other materials).
Questions to consider
Should the cotton industry help apparel companies understand the basics – and complexities – of the cotton supply chain?
Would this assistance allow for effective and mutually beneficial partnerships?