If you buy one of Theory’s Good Cotton shirts, you can email the company and ask where the Supima cotton in your shirt was grown. The brand has committed to traceability so thoroughly that it has partnered with a group that uses forensic science to confirm the origin of cotton, down to the specific farm.
As sustainability becomes more of a priority (or at least, key talking point) in the fashion industry, some brands have launched ecofriendly capsule collections, but Theory has taken an approach that’s almost the antithesis. Instead of making new designs in ecofriendly fabrics, it’s tried to make its core fabrics (wool, linen, and now cotton) as traceable and environmentally friendly as possible. For Theory that means suits, linens, and cotton shirting. Siddhartha Shukla, the chief brand officer of Theory, called the new Good Cotton products “the most important anchor products in our cotton lineup.” “[The fabrics are] where we felt like we’d have the most impact,” Shukla said. “Listen, I could make a sustainable capsule collection that was branded and marketed well. But that feels a little bit gimmicky.”
Reinventing a supply chain — specifically a cotton supply chain — is tricky. The fashion supply chain is often fractured and subcontracted to the extent that plenty of brands don’t know where their cotton comes from. For example, there are allegations that some cotton from Xinjiang is produced using forced labor. Many brands have been implicated, but there’s enough gray area that it’s not totally clear where the cotton came from. That’s how you get conflicting reports on whether brands are sourcing from places that use forced labor, which should be something that’s pretty clear.
Theory took a two-pronged approach to avoiding this problem. Prong one is partnering with trusted suppliers. The brand teamed up with Supima cotton, which produces cotton only in the United States, and an Italian mill that’s been run by the same family for five generations, the Albini mill. And prong two is testing the results to confirm that the cotton is indeed ethically produced.
The process is long. When cotton is spun into yarn at a mill, it can be mixed in with cotton from all over the world, which means that it could potentially be mixed in with “conflict cotton,” cotton grown in areas that may use slave labor, or is produced by ISIL. But to ensure that the brand actually knows where its cotton was being grown, Theory partnered with Oritain, a forensic technology group, to back up its claims with science. Wendy Waugh, the senior vice-president for raw materials and sustainability at Theory says Oritain is kind of like “cotton CSI.” The cotton picks up trace elements from the environment that creates a fingerprint, that can be tested and traced to a specific location.
Supima grows the cotton, sends it to the Albini mill, and then Oritain verifies where the cotton was grown. This may seem like overkill, considering many customers may not care where in California their cotton was grown. But Waugh says it’s crucial. “We needed to be certain that our cotton is coming from a place that follows strict environmental and social regulations,” Waugh said. “We needed to be able to prove that this was the case — for ourselves and then for our customer.”
For the customer, this is a lot of information to take in. There will be messaging online and in the hangtag that explains what Good Cotton is. The company is also working on incorporating some kind of QR technology where you can scan an item and find out where it comes from. There’s also a page online that explains all three Theory for Good fabrics, with a video that explains more. And in the spirit of the reverse-capsule collection model, the Good Cotton will be gradually incorporated into more and more Theory products, starting this spring. But beginning with the most popular and working your way backward seems to make perfect sense.