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Cargill, target partner on cotton-tracing tech

Experts say cotton tracing is a lot like adding features when buying a car: pay more, have more. With enough demand, traceability could become a standard feature.

They expressed delight that the industry is moving forward on a corporate basis as well as driven by the consumer. They also concede that Change is not easy. It requires a commitment from everyone who wants to do better.

The United States grows about 11 percent of the world’s cotton supply, and much of the rest comes from areas known to use child labor or forced labor, making traceability an important part of the cotton supply chain.

A T-shirt bought from a brand might be 100 percent cotton, but that doesn’t necessarily explain the garment’s whole history. Companies looking to sell guilt-free garments have long struggled to track a global supply chain that spins out 54 billion pounds of cotton per year. Traceability is important, because among the world’s 10 largest cotton-producing countries, seven are facing accusations of using child or forced labor.

Minnesota companies Cargill and Target have responded to consumer demand for transparency in clothing and textiles by teaming up with a tech company that can follow the fabric around the world. FibreTrace uses a digitally trackable pigment that follows a bale of cotton from initial processing to finished product.

The way the cotton industry works, it’s hard to differentiate once it’s in the supply chain, said Mitch Standen, global head of operations for FiberTrace. It all comes down to knowing where your product is, when and where it was produced, and verifying that information with a scan.

Cargill, one of the world’s largest buyers of raw cotton, will use the technology on 50,000 tons of cotton from the U.S. and Brazil this year that will end up in products on Target shelves early next year. For Target, it’s both about meeting consumer demand and living up to its own corporate pledges.

Much of the cotton grown in the world comes from areas where forced or child labor is used in cotton fields. Tracing the commodity to its source and through the supply chain can help brands and consumers choose ethically sourced clothing.

According to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Labor, China produces 24 percent of world cotton of which 24 percent production involves human rights and child labor issues. Child labor in cotton production also exist in India (23 percent), Brazil (13 Percent), United States (11percent), Pakistan (6 percent), Australia (4 percent), Turkey (3 Percent), Uzbekistan (3 percent), Argentina (1 percent) and Mali (1 percent).

Target’s cotton policy states the retailer “does not knowingly buy or sell products that are made, in whole or in part, using forced or underage labor.” The company specifically doesn’t accept products with cotton from Turkmenistan or China’s Xinjiang province, where forced labor is reportedly widespread in cotton fields.

But as cotton moves around the world from field to gin to mill, one farm’s crop often becomes an anonymous thread. Even when bypassing the global supply chain, direct sourcing can be prohibitively expensive for many consumers because it lacks the efficiencies of scale.
Standen said FibreTrace can back up sustainability claims, like a farm’s regenerative practices, as tracked cotton appears on shelves. It could also rein in costs with real-time shipping and inventory data rather than relying on paperwork and phone calls for sourcing. That all makes the business case for traceability stronger.

Globally, 75 percent of consumers said they are willing to pay up to 5 percent more for transparency in their clothing’s origin, according to a PwC survey last year. Less than a third, though, said they would pay more than a 10 percent premium.

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