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Cotton Around the World: Domestic vs. Foreign Cotton Supply Chain

In between seasons, you take a look at your closet and switch out your clothes to accommodate warmer or colder weather. As you review your wardrobe, have you ever wondered what it takes to make your favorite sweater or shirt? The truth is your favorite piece of cotton clothing took a very long journey to get to your closet, regardless if the cotton was grown in the United States or in a foreign country.

In this post, we’ll explore the cotton supply chain and the implications it has around the world.

From Seed to Sale

Cotton is grown in more than 100 countries in the world. Of these countries, the United States, India, and China are the top three producers.

There’s no doubt that cotton is a popular crop. It is the most widely used natural fiber in the world. The total production of cotton in the world is close to 25 million tonnes, which is worth about $12 billion. Its production is crucial to the economic and social development of countries, especially in developing and underdeveloped countries.

So what is cotton’s journey from the farm to the shelf?

The cotton supply chain follows 7 steps, but has various complexities thanks to transportation and manufacturing. In fact, a simple cotton t-shirt travels thousands of miles a along the supply chain before it ends up in a store. This is the full roadmap:

  1. Cotton is planted and grown to maturity Depending on where the cotton is grown, machines or human labor are used.
  2. Cotton is harvested and ginned When the cotton is ready, it is harvested, or picked, and packed. Harvesting can be performed by machines or by hand picking. Once the cotton is picked and packed, it travels to a gin. At the cotton gin, seeds, stems and dirt are removed from the fiber.
  3. Cotton is baled Once the cotton is cleaned, it is baled, or packaged, so it can be shipped to a spinning mill.
  4. Cotton is spun Once the cotton arrives at a spinning mill (which is usually located in a foreign country like China or India), it is spun into thread or yarn, depending on its eventual use. The yarn is then shipped to a garment manufacturing facility if it’s not directly connected to the spinning     mill.
  5. Cotton is dyed, woven and finished Typically, the yard is dyed to the required color before it is woven into fabric. Once the cotton is woven into cloth, it is often enhanced with finishing     techniques, such as singing, desizing, scouring, or bleaching.
  6. The woven fabric is cut and sewn After the cotton is woven into fabric, it is cut and sewn into the final product – like a new shirt or a pair of jeans.
  7. Final products are packaged and shipped When the final products are read, they are packaged and shipped to warehouses or directly to stores for sale.

A Growing Problem in the Cotton Supply Chain

Cotton does have a long journey to get to your closet, but some of the most significant differences between one shirt and another are established at the outset, based on where and how it is grown.

Cotton takes water, land, fertilizer and pesticides to grow. Like most crops, cotton attracts insects, and farmers have to use pesticides to control them. Thankfully, American farmers have become experts in using a much smaller quantity of powerful chemicals on their crops. In addition, cotton grows best in warm climates, so it requires large amounts of water to grow. According to World Wildlife, 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilogram of cotton—that’s equivalent to just one pair of jeans! Inefficient irrigation is a problem across the world. Luckily, many American farmers use targeted irrigation techniques that minimize the amount of water they use.  And if proper soil conservation isn’t practiced, regular cultivation of land for cotton can cause soil degradation. That’s right – most American farmers practice rigorous soil conservation programs to ensure the sustainability of their farms and fields.

And while land is affected, another major impact is on the people who grow and harvest cotton around the world. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, free citizens are systematically forced to work on the cotton fields during harvest season to help produce as much cotton as possible for the country. Forced labor is an ongoing issue in some foreign countries.

Harvesting at Home

Cotton production in the United States isn’t perfect, but stricter government regulations by the government and a culture built on incorporating best practices by family farmers have significantly reduced the industry’s effects on the environment.

For example, at HomeGrown Cotton we protect the land we love and use. Our family farmers have continually improved their practices to the point where they now use 82 percent less water, 44 percent less soil, 31 percent less land, and 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions to grow cotton as compared to 35 years ago.

HomeGrown cotton is grown, harvested, ginned, and baled in the United States before it is shipped to complete its supply chain lifecycle. When you purchase products made with American cotton you can feel confident that your purchase is contributing to an ethical and sustainable domestic supply chain. Learn more about our secure supply chain on our website.


Whether you’re a manufacturer looking to enhance your cotton products or a customer just wanting to know a bit more, we’d love to hear from you.

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