The Path to Sustainability Relies on Universal Access to Traceability Tools

By Kanwar Usman, Head of Textiles, International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC)

It’s a sometimes-frustrating aspect of modern life: We are always surrounded by tools and technologies that can improve our lives, make us more efficient at work, and take better care of the world around us — but just because something exists doesn’t necessarily mean you can take advantage of it.

Despite the promise of technology, cost is often a major barrier to access. Sometimes it’s the user’s geographic location, a too-steep learning curve, high capital requirements, policy challenges, or other constraints.

As we strive to ensure a safe and healthy world for future generations to enjoy, it’s incumbent on the entire global textiles value chain to ensure that sustainability in textiles — and all the money, knowledge, and technical access it requires — is a solution that is available to everyone. Without this, efforts to promote sustainability it will fail, leaving behind those most in need.

How We Got Here

The textile sector has significant global economic importance, with the clothing industry alone valued at $1.6 trillion and providing employment to over 300 million people worldwide along its value chain. The international trade of textiles has experienced remarkable growth, soaring from $95.58 billion in the 1980s to an impressive $958 billion in 2022.

In developing countries, the textile industry plays a pivotal role in driving economic development. The textile sector was the first wave of industrialization starting with the First Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom in the late 1700s. As a light industry, the textile sector has continued to catalyze manufacturing growth and spur industrialization and exports due to its relatively low capital requirements and labor-intensivity. The sector not only fosters economic advancement but also can serve as a crucial initial entry point for developing nations into the global market for manufactured goods.

While textiles have contributed to poverty reduction and growth, the rise of fast fashion has also increasingly made the textile industry a major contributors to pollution and waste. More and more garments are being produced, relying on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption, and short-lived garment use. To achieve faster and cheaper production, manufacturing is often outsourced, with relatively few brands retaining their own production facilities. Cost reduction has been the major driver of transformation.

As a result, for the last several decades, manufacturing has shifted from high-income countries to developing and least developed countries. While the initial stages of textile production are heavily sourced from Asia, design, marketing, and top management, often remain in the USA or Europe.

This shift has created a complex global supply chain, with various stakeholders spread across several continents. This stratified system comprises interdependent companies and multi-disciplinary actors, including farms that grow fibers, petrochemical industries, facilities that make and dye yarns, manufacturers that knit or weave yarns into fabrics, printers that dye and/or fabrics, factories that cut, sew, and assemble garments, logistics providers, and retail operations. The intricate network highlights the complexity and interdependence of the modern textile industry.

The long supply chain of textiles and clothing value chain has been linked to a plethora of social and environmental issues, including Tier One factories that make clothing, Tier Two fabric makers, Tier Three yarn manufacturers, and Tier Four agricultural producers. Each has its own set of challenges. Rising concerns about sustainability and ever-shifting consumer demand have significant implications for markets and the environment along each part of the value chain.

No Traceability, No Sustainability

Traceability enables the tracking of materials and products throughout their lifecycle from raw materials to end consumer, ensures transparency and accountability, and supports compliance with sustainability and ethical standards. It allows stakeholders to verify the origins of raw materials, monitor environmental and social impacts, and ensure that products meet regulatory and market requirements.

Implementing robust traceability systems promotes practices that protect human rights, foster a circular economy, and ultimately contributes to a more transparent, responsible, and sustainable global supply chain. However, sustainability claims can be verified only when a comprehensive traceability system is available that can manage the complexities of the modern textiles value chain, which is mostly fragmented and relies heavily on hard-to-track small and medium enterprises.

This makes traceability a critical tool to achieving a sustainable world — the ability to identify materials throughout their life cycle, track them forward and then trace them backward. And sustainable development requires an integrated approach that balances environmental concerns with social and economic development.

Both government and private sectors have taken the initiative to achieve sustainability and mitigate the impact of climate change and have led to significant advancements in traceability. Initially, traceability was driven by the private sector to substantiate claims or statements relating to a product, service, or business process based on specific characteristics, but governments have also gotten involved.

The is a diverse array of policies, frameworks, and legislation on this issue, including United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); the Paris Agreement; EU Green Deal; UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action; Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive; Circular Economy Action Plan; and many more, all underscoring the critical importance of traceability.

Access for All, Not Just Some

Many different organizations — some private sector, some public — have set their sights on achieving sustainability in the textiles value chain building on traceability. While their approaches emphasize different tasks and priorities, they need to achieve universal accessibility to ensure people are not left behind.

Rule #1: Any solution that relies on technology that is not available to small holders in least developed countries is not pro-poor. If the technologies are too complex for all farmers to understand and access, it is too complex to be the solution.

Rule #2: Any solution that is too expensive for the poorest of the poor to use will exclude them. If the cost is too high for subsistence farmers to bear, it is too expensive to be the solution.

In some ways, smallholder farmers — especially those in Africa — are already in good position to take advantage of the global public’s increasing concern about the future of our environment. The cotton they grow is inherently sustainable because:

  • It is almost exclusively cultivated by smallholder farmers using crop rotation. Cotton is grown in rotation with other crops, such as maize, soy, or groundnuts. That reduces both leaching from the soil and the occurrence of pests.
  • African cotton is often a complementary cash crop, cultivated for sale alongside foods grown for subsistence, thus contributing to food security.
  • Smallholder farmers practice rain-fed cultivation, so they use no irrigation water.
  • African cotton is hand-picked in a careful and environmentally sound way, taking only completely mature fiber bolls.
  • Many African farmers prioritize Integrated Pest Management, which utilize bio-pesticides rather than chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides.

There are multiple aspects of sustainability — economic, environmental, and social — and the goal of achieving a healthy, stable world for the future will never be achieved if anyone in the global textiles value chain is excluded because they don’t have enough money, they live in the wrong place, or they don’t have enough training. In the quest for global sustainability, we will all win together — or we will all lose separately.

Explore the critical role of transparency in sustainable fashion. This article examines how open communication and traceable supply chains are reshaping the industry, empowering consumers, and driving positive environmental and social impact in the global fashion ecosystem.
Kanwar Usman
July 1, 2024
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