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Cotton cultivating and manufacturing is helping to lead the charge toward sustainability in apparel manufacturing.

This story first appeared in the April 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Cotton Leads program, launched in October, is growing as a key global supply chain program committed to responsibly produced cotton. The program emphasizes national capabilities of the cotton industries in Australia and the U.S., along with their commitment to continual improvement, research and best practices. Combined cotton production in these countries accounts for about 17 percent of global output of the plant. The Cotton Leads program continues to gain interest among textile and apparel companies committed to responsible sourcing.

“The founding members of Cotton Leads program, including Cotton Australia, the National Cotton Council, Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated, are gratified that so many businesses around the world recognize the ongoing environmental gains made by cotton growers in Australia and the United States,” said Mark Messura, senior vice president of global supply chain marketing at Cotton Inc.

More than 100 retailers, brands and manufacturers have joined the Cotton Leads program, including the newest partner, Brooks Brothers. The partners commit to the principles of the program and acknowledge that Cotton Leads cotton, grown under the regulatory environments of Australia and the U.S., helps to meet their company’s objectives for responsible sourcing criteria.

In explaining how the Cotton Leads program fits into Brooks Bros.’ sourcing needs, Joe Dixon, the company’s senior vice president of production and technical services, said, “Brooks Brothers is enthusiastically committed to sustainable sourcing. Because cotton continues to be a mainstay of Brooks Brothers’ product offerings, we require significant amounts of high quality, responsibly produced cotton fiber. We look to a range of opportunities that, like the Cotton Leads program, can demonstrate best practices, reduced environmental impact, and make a commitment to ongoing improvement and traceability.”

At this month’s Australian Fashion Week, Brooke Summers, communications manager at Cotton Australia, spoke to about 100 industry insiders about the story of Cotton Leads and what it hopes to achieve in lifting the standards of cotton production around the world.

“Cotton Leads is about recognizing that cotton growers in the U.S. and Australia are the best in the world at producing responsible, high-quality crops for the world’s textile market,” Summers said. “Over the last 20 years, our growers have been quietly working away at developing their sustainability credentials, to the point now where Australia’s cotton growers are recognized amongst the most sustainable in the world. We are the most water efficient, we produce three times as much cotton for the same amount of land compared to the rest of the world, we’re using 95 percent less pesticides than we did 15 years ago, we look after our workers and we’re constantly looking for ways to reduce the resources that go into producing bales of cotton that eventually end up as yarn and finished products.”

Germany’s Gerhard Rösch GmbH is launching a new sleepwear collection made from 100 percent Cotton Made in Africa cotton that can be traced back to the African cotton growing region. The company is certified according to the newly adopted Hard Identity Preserved standard of the Aid by Trade Foundation that calls for seamless traceability along the textile chain of Cotton Made in Africa cotton, with Rösch’s sleepwear line the first to be produced under the new program.

“This is a great achievement for us to be the first company to offer its customers products that can be traced back to the growing area of CmiA cotton in Africa,” said Andreas Söffker, managing director of Gerhard Rösch.

Christian Barthel, supply chain manager of the Aid by Trade Foundation, said, “These requirements follow our demand for transparency and simultaneously pragmatic feasibility and can thus be used by a wide range of customers.”

The requirements of the HIP standard include separate storage of cotton throughout all production stages of the value chain. Additional requirements for the entire textile value chain have been summarized by the Aid by Trade Foundation in its Chain of Custody Guideline and published online. The foundation provides its partners with additional support in monitoring the processing of CmiA cotton in the textile value chain through workshops and analysis of commodity flows. Consumers can recognize CmiA HIP products by the corresponding CmiA label.

Social and environmental responsibility in the company and its supply chain is part of the corporate philosophy of Gerhard Rösch. Since 2013, the firm, based in Tübingen, has been a partner of the CmiA initiative and supports improving the living conditions of an estimated 435,000 sub-Saharan Africa farmers and their family members, encompassing more than 3.2 million people. The initiative trains cotton farmers in modern, efficient and environmentally friendly cultivation methods that will help them improve the quality of their cotton, yield higher crops and earn a better income. An alliance composed of international textile companies established by the foundation purchases the CmiA cotton and pays a licensing fee to the foundation, which is reinvested in the crop regions.

Pact, an ethical and organic apparel brand, has launched a line of organic cotton apparel manufactured in a Fair Trade Certified facility. The line will include 19 styles featuring 78 different items. Featuring custom-designed women’s T-shirts at $14.99, the collection launched last month exclusively at select Whole Foods Markets.

On July 1, the Fair Trade Certified collection will be expanded to include underwear, leggings, camisoles, men’s T-shirts, long johns and baby products. The expanded line will be available at retailers across the U.S. and on This is the first Fair Trade Certified line for Pact, which follows every step of the manufacturing process in a supply chain that is certified using third-party auditors by Global Organic Textile Standards and Fair Trade USA. All of the cotton for Pact’s Fair Trade Certified line is sourced from Chetna Organic, a cooperative of 15,000 organic cotton farmers in India who practice organic agriculture. Chetna works to improve livelihood options of smallholder farmers by making their farm systems more sustainable and profitable, and by creating access to ethical markets in cotton.

“Having visited the cotton farms in India myself, I’ve witnessed the authenticity of the supply chain and the remarkable impact that Chetna has on community development,” said Joe Dickson, senior global quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market, noting that it is the first time the company has sold Fair Trade Certified apparel.

The Fair Trade Certified line is produced in a certified factory in India that is committed to ethical and sustainable production of garments. Factory workers are permanent employees as opposed to migrant laborers, their families are covered by factory-provided health insurance and the children of workers receive free education through high school.

“By focusing on the people who make our products, from the farmers who grow the organic cotton to the workers who stitch the garments, Pact is fulfilling its mission to use apparel production as a means of making the world a better place,” said Jeff Denby, founder of Pact. “We really can create beautiful, high-quality apparel at a great price while investing in sustainability — economic, environmental and social — within our supply chain.”

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