A crisp white T-shirt. Classic blue jeans. A comfortable pair of socks. These are just a few of today’s wardrobe essentials worn by people around the world – and each is typically made with cotton. Produced from natural cultivation around the world, cotton is arguably one of the most important fabrics at the heart of the fashion industry.
But, as sustainability continues to be on the agenda of many major fashion brands and retailers – driven both by industry-wide stakeholders and consumers themselves – how does fashion industry do better for the environment compared to this fiber?
Many brands are responding to the need for change in material sourcing. Some have made bold public commitments to source more sustainably: Levi’s has pledged to source 100% cotton from sustainable sources by 2025, as has high street stalwart Next.
But what does “sustainable” cotton mean and how should the fashion industry define it, especially when it comes to avoiding greenwashing? With many growing markets around the world, what qualifies as “sustainable” cotton?
Drapers speaks with Gary Adams, President of the US Cotton Trust Protocol, to learn his definition of “sustainable” cotton.
There’s a lot of conversation in the fashion industry about ‘more sustainable cotton’. Why is this such an important topic?
I think the shift to producing clothes in a more sustainable way was initially driven by the desire of brands and retailers to preserve our planet for future generations. This push has been further fueled by a more demanding stakeholder group – made up of consumers, shareholders and regulators – demanding more sustainable clothing.
In a study conducted by the US Cotton Trust Protocol in 2021, half of brands and retailers said that over the next 12 months they expected to see an increase in customer spending on sustainable clothing. Brands and retailers recognize where their customers’ demand is coming from and respond accordingly by focusing more on the materials they buy.
But why target cotton in particular? After polyester, cotton is the most widely used fiber in the fashion industry, accounting for 24% of all fibers and fabrics used by brands and retailers globally, according to research by sustainable technology solution Common Objective. This represents 26.2 million tons per year.
This means that if we as an industry can continue to make improvements in the way we grow cotton – for example, by reducing our water consumption and our greenhouse gas emissions – this can bring significant environmental improvements.
Additionally, cotton is also a natural crop, allowing designers to move away from petroleum-based polyester and the carbon emissions and microplastics associated with this material.
“More sustainable cotton” can be difficult to define. What makes cotton more sustainable?
Cotton is grown in multiple markets around the world, all with different conditions, soils, climates and regulations. Finding a common definition for all of these varied elements can be difficult.
Additionally, industry has traditionally not had access to data, which has made it more difficult to define sustainability. From the outset, we knew that the Trust Protocol needed to provide members with field data on the cotton they bought, making that data more accessible.
We believe that more sustainable cotton shows high environmental performance and continuous improvement against six key environmental measures: reduction of water, energy, land use, greenhouse gas emissions and soil loss, and increased energy efficiency.
The U.S. cotton industry has set 2025 sustainability goals in all of these areas that we are aligned with and our producers are working on. By achieving these goals, American cotton can meet the criteria of what we believe to be “more sustainable cotton.”
Regenerative farming practices are also gaining in importance. What is that?
Regenerative practices are at the heart of how our producers produce their cotton. The goal of regenerative agriculture is quite simple: grow cotton neutrally or with a net positive environmental and social impact. American growers have been working towards this result for years, using several different techniques to achieve this.
Operation of minimal or no tillage [which is the agricultural preparation of soil by mechanical agitation of various types] A policy to reduce soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions is one of the main practices growers employ today.
Our members also undertake ‘precision farming’, which uses technologies such as GPS receivers, multi-spectral imagery and ground sensors to guide growers to use only the volume of water or other seekers strictly necessary. .
Additionally, by adding different plants to their cotton fields, US growers can positively impact their operations while increasing yield. Cover crops – such as clover – are planted to promote biodiversity and soil health. Similarly, natural field borders or buffer zones are cultivated to protect topsoil from wind erosion and allow pollinator species to thrive.
How is data becoming increasingly important for sustainable cotton farming?
A more sustainable cotton crop can only be achieved through the use of consistent data collection. Without data, how can you measure the initial impact of your culture and the progress you are making? This is especially important in a world where greater transparency is demanded of brands and retailers – data is essential to show exactly what you are doing.
Since the inception of the Trust Protocol 18 months ago, we knew we had to provide our members with unparalleled access to some of the most comprehensive environmental data available. We use the FieldPrint calculator from Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture: Field to Market to provide our growers, as well as brands and retailers, with aggregated annual field data from US cotton fields. This means that our growers can constantly assess where to make their next improvements and our brand members can receive assurance that their raw materials are grown more sustainably.
The trust protocol is already seeing results. Could you tell us about it?
A lot of hard work and effort has gone into launching the Trust Protocol in 2020, so I’m immensely proud – as well as excited – that we’re already achieving success just a year later.
We see success in two ways: the first encompasses the fact that we have already signed up with over 700 supply chain members, including many top brands and retailers. Our goal is to continue to grow rapidly, creating a science-based sustainability initiative that spans the entire textile supply chain.
Second, we determine success as progress toward our environmental goals. In our inaugural annual report, released at the end of 2021, we released year one figures, with improvements evident across the board. These included a 14% increase in water efficiency, a 15% reduction in energy consumption and a 78% reduction in soil loss. And as our growers continue to innovate, we expect our growers to maintain those numbers and strive to improve them.
Along with the results we’ve seen, I’m proud that we’ve provided supply chain transparency for our members, because I know this is such an important issue for brands and retailers across the fashion. Our protocol consumption management solution leverages blockchain technology to record and verify the movement of American cotton lint through the supply chain, starting at the gin. In an industry that previously struggled with transparency, we are helping brands overcome this issue.
2021/22 Trust Protocol pilot results:
– Used 10 less square feet of land to produce one pound of cotton lint
– Increased water efficiency by 14%
– Reduced energy consumption by 15%
– Reduction of GHG emissions by 25%
– Reduced soil loss by 78%
– 66% of trust protocol growers had a positive soil carbon index
What does working with the Trust Protocol bring to fashion brands and retailers? How will this help them achieve cotton-related sustainability goals?
That’s exactly the conversation we have with brands and retailers every day. The answer is simple: not only will our cotton contribute to their Sustainable Cotton Sourcing Commitments, which most major brands and retailers now have, but we also provide them with aggregate field-level data related to our cotton.
Our vision is to set a new standard for sustainable cotton where full transparency is a reality alongside a central goal of continuous improvement to reduce our environmental impact.
Brands and retailers must also navigate a changing consumer landscape, where style and price must compete with durability. In a world where consumers demand a better understanding of how their clothes were produced and the environmental impact of that garment, brands want to be able to answer these questions. This is where our third-party verified data can really benefit our members.
If brands want to know the average reduction in water or greenhouse gas emissions from their cotton, they can see it. If they want to know the soil preservation of their cotton, they can also see it.
Fashion companies need to be careful when it comes to greenwashing issues, especially when it comes to claims on cotton and other fabrics. What is your advice?
We encourage all brands – not just in fashion but across all industries – to invest and start using measurable, third-party verified data. It has been proven by industry watchdogs that a few players are making unsubstantiated claims about their clothing, which is worrying because we should be going the other way, to detailed claims based on science and data. .
From what we hear and see, most brands and retailers want to provide their customers and investors with the transparency they need about the apparel the company makes. Trust is essential in the fashion industry and data is the key to building trust.