Are Your Sheets ‘Egyptian Cotton’?

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More U.S. retailers probe Indian supplier; Target cuts ties, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney launch audit of Welspun

Egyptian cotton is prized for its softness and durability—selling points for retailers of premium sheets. PHOTO: AHMED GOMAA/XINHUA/ZUMA PRESS

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.,Target Corp. and other big U.S. retailers have become entangled in a controversy over whether one of India’s biggest textile companies has been supplying their stores with phony “Egyptian cotton” sheets.

Egyptian cotton, which since colonial times has been prized for its softness and durability, is often touted by stores that charge a premium for bed sheets or bath towels made with the material. It is found in everything, from Ritz-Carlton hotel sheets to Brooks Brothers dress shirts.

Last Friday, Target said it was pulling thousands of items off its shelves and cutting ties with Welspun India Ltd. after an investigation determined Welspun had used non-Egyptian cotton for about two years.

Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney Co. and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., three other big Welspun customers, said this week they were opening investigations into whether the company supplied them with authentic Egyptian-cotton products.

“We will aggressively pursue our investigation and take appropriate action, if needed,” Bed Bath & Beyond said on Wednesday.


Welspun says it has commissioned an accounting firm to review its supply chain. “We are taking this situation very seriously….We won’t rest until this situation is resolved,” the Indian company said Wednesday.

Welspun’s share price has been sliced by half since the Target allegations surfaced last Friday. Mumbai’s stock exchange suspended trading in its shares Wednesday, as the stock fell to its maximum daily limit for a third-straight day.

Two-thirds of Welspun’s $898 million in sales for the year ended March 31 came from American retailers.

The textile maker also supplies towels for the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Rugby World Cup. Welspun declined to say how it sources its Egyptian cotton, saying only that it would be covered as part of its audit.

Egyptian cotton is coveted for its softness and durability. But one of the world’s largest bedding manufacturers is being accused by Target of pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes. Photo: Getty.

Egypt produced less than 1% of the global cotton supply last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and its output has suffered amid political and economic upheaval in recent years. The country’s production is estimated to be 320,000 bales in 2016, or a third of what it produced in 2006, according to the USDA.

“There are a lot more Egyptian cotton goods than Egyptian cotton,” said Jordan Lea, co-owner of Eastern Trading Co., a Greenville, S.C., cotton-trading firm. “It’s impossible.”

Like Cuban cigars or Champagne wines, the defining characteristic of Egyptian cotton isn’t necessarily its quality but where it is grown. Any cotton harvested in Egypt—there are roughly 10 varieties grown—can carry the label.

“Long fiber” cotton sourced in Egypt is nearly indistinguishable from “long staple” cotton grown in other parts of the world once it becomes yarn or fabric, analysts say.

The Cotton Egypt Association, which licenses the trademark and certifies suppliers, estimates that 90% of products labeled “Egyptian cotton” are fakes but such public rebukes for mislabeling are rare.

In October, the government-supported group said it had discovered the genomic fingerprint for Egyptian cotton and launched a crackdown to combat knockoffs using DNA testing. Welspun was one of Cotton Egypt’s certified suppliers, having received the “Egyptian Cotton Gold Seal” for its bed linens, bath rugs and towels in April this year. The Egyptian association didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Egyptian cotton output has suffered amid recent economic upheaval. PHOTO: DE AGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

DNA testing, however, isn’t widespread, said a spokesman for Cotton Inc., which represents U.S. cotton producers and importers. That has left manufacturers and retailers mostly dependent on following the raw material through a complex supply chain. Each stage of a cotton product’s production, from yarn making to fabric cutting, often happens in a different country.

A search for “Egyptian cotton sheets” on turns up more than 2 million results, while one on turns up more than 24,000 results. Both figures include items sold by third parties. now lists just six items.

A Target spokeswoman said about 750,000 sets of sheets in stores between August 2014 and July 2016 under the Fieldcrest brand were labeled as made with Egyptian cotton.

She declined to say what triggered the company’s investigation into Welspun. The company said Welspun’s conduct “was a clear violation” of its policies.

The discovery underscores the difficulties of policing a global supply chain, where large retailers assemble a sprawling network of suppliers in developing countries to produce their goods at cheaper cost.

Global retailers often complain of poor quality and weak compliance at factories in India and Bangladesh, but the tangled networks make it tough to assess blame when things go wrong.


*This story first appeared on The Wall Street Journal


Despite the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there’s a lot you don’t know about that T-shirt

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An ambitious effort by a global apparel industry group to measure the social and environmental impact of making clothes and shoes has yet to deliver on its promise

Rescuers workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza building, home to a garment factory, in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013. They struggled to reach many who were trapped in the rubble. Photograph: ZUMA / Rex Features

Behind the images of beauty and style is an often dirty business that relies onwater-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in its factories, most of them in poor countries and hidden from view. While garment work has provided a pathway out of poverty – now in China, but earlier in the US and UK – no worker should be exposed to the unsafe conditions that led to calamities like in Bangladesh, where in 2013 the collapse of the structurally unsafe Rana Plaza building killed more than 1,100 workers.

No company can solve such problems on its own. Yet an ambitious effort to bring the industry together to deliver sweeping changes has yet to deliver. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labor unions and academics, aims to create “an apparel, footwear and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities”.

Four years ago, I took a close look at the coalition’s promising beginning. Last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an industry gathering focused on sustainability, I caught up with apparel industry executives and their critics to see how much progress the industry group has made – and opinions are mixed.

To its credit, the coalition, launched in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia, has brought together 175 members whose companies account for more than 40% of the global apparel industry. They have been building what they expect to be the principal driver of change in the industry: a set of three online tools, known as theHigg Index, that measure the social and environmental impact of brands, manufacturing facilities and products. Companies are supposed to use the index to collect information from their own operations and their suppliers’, and all of it goes into a database that coalition members can use to evaluate suppliers. About 6,000 factories have provided information about their social and environmental impact.

Bangladeshi activists and relatives of the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of the disaster at the site where the building once stood on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2014. More than 1,100 workers died in the world’s worst garment factory disaster. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images


But most coalition members have been slow to use the index, and there’s no evidence they are reducing – not merely reporting – their impact. A Higg tool designed to measure a product’s footprint – information such as the raw materials and energy used that might interest consumers – won’t be completed until next year. What’s more, none of the social and environmental data being collected is publicly available, at least for now. Companies aren’t even permitted to release their own Higg Index data.

Until the data becomes public, its value will be limited. Environmental and human rights groups that want to hold the industry accountable don’t have access to the information. Nor do investors, who worry about supply chain and reputation risks, have a reliable way to measure one company against another. Consumers who want to know how and where T-shirts or shoes are made will have to wait before they can use the data to learn whether those items are manufactured ethically. Right now, they get little information. Knowing, for example, that a shirt is composed of organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t say anything about the factory conditions where it was produced.

Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the coalition is moving too slowly to collect Higg data and isn’t doing enough to prod companies to remedy problems that turn up. “I am quite surprised at the lack of uptake,” she says. “There are too many companies, even with high profiles, that are not circulating the forms to their suppliers.”

Several big companies, led by H&M and Target, have embraced the Higg tools, as has Patagonia. Others have been slow to use them, but the coalition declined to identify the laggards. Several major industry players, including fast fashion retailer Forever 21, have declined to join the SAC at all.

Nike says it hasn’t used Higg widely, not because it doesn’t support SAC’s effort but because of what Hannah Jones, its chief sustainability officer, describes as “technical, boring IT reasons”. Nike monitors its supply chain using its own software, Jones says.

“The vast majority are using some of the tools,” says Jason Kibbey, the coalition’s chief executive. “The scale and depth with which they’re using them varies widely.”

Several reasons explain why the index hasn’t been widely used. For one thing, it’s still under development. Building the Higg Index is a complex undertaking, Kibbey says. The coalition has to balance competing demands – making tools accessible and relatively easy to use, yet powerful enough to capture an array of environmental and social impacts from farms, factories and stores.

Employees work inside a garment factory in Mumbai, India. Some major brands have worked on reducing their environmental and social impact in manufacturing. But critics say there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Brands also are resistant to spending the time and energy to gathering data, especially from their suppliers. Making a piece of clothing involves multiple suppliers, including: farmers who grow the raw materials; dye-and-finishing mills where environmental impacts are greatest; and cut-and-sew factories where garments are produced. But brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains.

Several coalition members tell me they plan to make the index data public eventually. Kibbey says his members have not agreed when that information will become public.

In the meantime, individual brands have launched their own campaigns to address environmental and social challenges. Nike, for example, has invested in designing and making sneakers that use less material. H&M has improved the dirty process of dyeing textiles and nudged its customers to recycle their clothes. Patagonia discovered slave labor practices among its suppliers and took steps to root them out.

But those efforts, while worthwhile, aren’t enough to reduce the enormous resource requirements of the fashion business and the waste it generates. In the US alone, 10.5m tons of textiles go to landfills each year. There’s lots of talk in the industry about the circular economy, but real progress has been scant.

Will the coalition ever achieve its lofty goal? That seems to be a big uncertainty, even from its members. Rick Ridgeway, a longtime Patagonia executive who has guided the coalition from the start, says it best: “The hypothesis is that putting better data into the hands of decision makers in the apparel value chains is going to result in better decisions. But that’s a hypothesis.”

He goes on: “Now the rubber is going to meet the road. Are companies, year over year, going to improve? Are they going to lower their impact? Are they going to benefit the people in the supply chain? We don’t know. I’m optimistic, but until that happens, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an unproven experiment.”

*This story first appeared on The Guardian

Target, Nike, and Levi’s Partner With White House to Fight Global Warming

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By Cameron Wolf

Photo: Stephen Ehlers/Getty Images
Photo: Stephen Ehlers/Getty Images

68 new companies joined the Obama administration’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge and vowed to reduce its carbon footprint, the White House announced today. Apparel and beauty brands like Levi’s, Target, Nike, and L’Oréal are all part of the new crop of companies that made a variety of different pledges to reduce detrimental effects on the environment.

Each company submitted a fact sheet that promised a certain amount of reduction. Levi’s, for example, wants to get its greenhouse gas emissions down 25% by 2020. Nike plans to reduce its energy consumption by 20% over the next ten years and has also partnered with MIT Climate CoLab in order to find “new ideas for engaging industries, designers and consumers in valuing, demanding and adopting low-impact materials,” according to WWD.

Target also vowed to make sure 80% of its stores are Energy Star certified, use 2,000% more solar panels to power stores and distribution centers, and to prevent 70% of its waste from hitting landfills by utilizing reuse or recycled programs — which are already being used by brands like Levi’s, H&M, and Puma.

Other non-apparel companies like Procter & Gamble, Disney, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Microsoft, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, and UPS also joined the program. Walmart was one of the original 13 companies to participate. There are now 81 companies involved total. When fully in place, the plan will reduce 6 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030, which is “equivalent to taking all the cars in the United States off the road for more than four years,” according to the White House press release.

*This story first appeared on Racked.