Do You Know the Story Behind Your Jeans?

Today, one of the largest department stores in the United States is providing customers of one of its premium private-label brands the opportunity to take a look behind — no pun intended — their jeans to learn the full story of the cotton that went into producing the jeans they hold in their hands. By simply scanning the QR code on the hangtag, a shopper can trace the cotton used to make that very pair back to the farms that produced it, viewing the names and faces of the farmers that own and work the land and learning about the history of the farms, their location, the various cotton growing practices they employ and how those have changed over the years.

The traceability program is made possible by Guatemala-based Denimatrix and its relatively new owner, PCCA, or, Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, based in Lubbock, Texas PCCA's acquisition of Denimatrix created the only completely vertical farm-to-factory apparel business in the Western Hemisphere, according to American Denimatrix marketing and sales director Wilson Avalos.

Back in 2009, when the Great Recession was full steam ahead, Denimatrix' factory wasn't. Previously producing 700,000 units per week — denim bottoms primarily for U.S. mass retailers at the lower end of the market — the company found itself struggling to get the business it needed, and inventory began to pile up.

Meanwhile, over at PCCA, the farmer-owned co-op of almost 10,000 members was looking to extend its supply chain further, to apparel manufacturing. The goal of PCCA, whose members together grow more than one-third of the cotton produced in the United States, is to make sure that their cotton is being traded at the best price possible. Formed in the 1950s, the group had found success since the mid-70s in converting some cotton into fabric itself; manufacturing would allow the group to own the entire supply chain — and its story.

It was a perfect match, and a partnership was born. PCCA acquired Denimatrix and a portion of the capacity (200,000 units per week) at the Guatemala facility. Cotton is grown in the United States (primarily in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas), woven into denim fabric in Texas and manufactured into jeans in Guatemala. The organization produces more cotton than it converts to fabric, and more fabric than its converts to jeans, so it continues to sell cotton and fabric directly to the market as well (see Innovator Award winner All-American Clothing).

"We ship a lot of cotton to China, Bangladesh, Turkey, Italy, Mexico, Colombia, the United States — all over the world. But once we sell that bale of cotton, the ability to track where it is coming from is lost," says Avalos. "But with our vertical farm, our infrastructure, we are able to tie the American farmer to the end pair of jeans, and that has a lot of value. People are growing more interested in sustainability and tracing their products to the source so that they understand who's involved in producing what they consume, the conditions they labor under and the way things are produced. We've seen this with products like orange juice for a while — a picture of the orange grove farmer is on the carton. Now we can enable this traceability with apparel."

For U.S. brands and retailers that manufacture a huge volume of denim jeans, American Denimatrix's traceability program offers an opportunity to create a premiere brand that is unique from its other collections. And with options for finishing, including waterless and chemical-free processes, an eco-conscious message can be added to the brand.

Additionally, notes Avalos, the carbon footprint of all of the denim produced by Denimatrix has been significantly reduced. "Today, only 40 percent of our cotton acreage uses artificial irrigation, with 60 percent grown in ‘dryland' — meaning that we depend on Mother Nature. Those that do irrigate use 35 percent less water than they used to. Our farmers have also reduced pesticide use by 60 percent in the past 20 years. There's been an increasing awareness from our farmers and our customers that we need to take care of our land," he says.

Read about all of the 2013 Top Innovators here.
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