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Climate Change Is Making Fashion’s Supply Chain Problems Worse

From floods in Pakistan to drought in Texas, extreme weather is mixing with political upheaval, economic challenges and trade tensions to threaten cotton supply.
Cotton blossoms and a flooded cotton field in Pakistan.
Flooding in Pakistan has destroyed nearly half of the country's cotton crops (right). (Getty)

The monsoon rain began in June. By the end of summer, huge swathes of Pakistan were fully submerged. More than 1,500 people have died in the devastating floods, and hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless. Water only began to recede in the worst-affected southern Sindh province this week, officials said.

The disaster has wiped out crops across the country, dealing a critical economic blow to the world’s fifth-largest cotton producer and a major textile manufacturer. Nearly half of the country’s cotton fields have been washed away, planning minister Ahsan Iqbal told reporters.

The situation in Pakistan is the deadliest in a wave of extreme weather linked to climate change that is contributing to exceptional volatility in fashion’s supply chains. For now, cotton is at the epicentre of upheaval.

“With climate patterns becoming more erratic there is serious risk on the supply of cotton,” said Rui Fontoura, an expert at Textile Exchange, a sustainable fibre-focussed non-profit organisation.


In India, the world’s largest cotton producer, rainfall and pests caused such a dent in supply that the country has had to turn to imports. In the US and Brazil — the world’s third and fourth cotton producers, respectively — drought has ravaged crops.

The issues aren’t just climate-change related. A US law that went into effect this summer tightened a ban on imports from China’s cotton-producing Xinjiang territory, where the Chinese government is accused by Western nations of detaining Uighur muslims and other ethnic minorities in forced labour camps.

Together, India, China, Pakistan, Brazil and the United States make up the top five growers of cotton. Coinciding trouble in each and every region spells unprecedented disruption for the textile industry.

Preparing for the Unknown

The worst of the shortage won’t be felt until 2024, according to Textile Exchange’s Fontoura.

But retailers can prepare today by stocking up on supply earlier, strengthening their relationships with suppliers, leveraging data to better predict demand and investing in the circular economy to reduce dependence on new production. That’s the case across the supply chain, with the forces buffeting cotton part of a wider climate of uncertainty.

For instance, Zara-owner Inditex told analysts on an earnings call Wednesday that it will temporarily increase production to mitigate potential supply chain disruptions in the next six months.

Chief executive Oscar García did not point to a specific segment in the supply chain, but said that the decision involves manufacturing in Asia, the Financial Times reported.

In the case of cotton, experts don’t yet know the full impact of this summer’s climate disasters, or of restrictions on imports from China. The European Union proposed its own ban on products made with forced labour this week.


Broader global instability is feeding into the climate of uncertainty. Fluctuations in the oil price as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, has kept demand for polyester low. That could in turn put more pressure on cotton demand at a time of restricted supply.

Still, there are ways to account for the unknown. Using data analytics to better plan for and manage inventory is one solution, though a product that could predict the future on all fronts of the supply chain doesn’t exist yet.

“Improving flexibility and agility should be a priority for this year,” said Sheng Lu, associate professor at University of Delaware’s Fashion and Apparel Studies department.

Lu recommends, for example, cultivating strong relationships with suppliers and vendors so that even if disruptions occur, brands can rely on their partners to come through.

“In the long run, it’s about how to make the industry more sustainable,” he said.



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Compiled by Joan Kennedy.

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