Optimizing sustainable cotton production for fashion companies

The production of raw materials accounts for around 38% of the fashion industry’s total emissions. Each year, 26.2 million tonnes of cotton are produced for the textile and apparel industries, according to Textile Exchange, a non-profit sustainable fibers and materials organization. In total, the fashion industry contributes around 4% of total global emissions, according to estimates by the Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company.

As these statistics become more widely known and the evidence of the climate crisis continues to mount, consumer sentiment is changing. Increased scrutiny is applied to the commercial activities of brands and retailers. Deloitte reported in 2022 that 34% of consumers stopped buying certain products due to ethical or environmental concerns.

With a vision to set a new standard in sustainable cotton production, the US Cotton Trust Protocol was officially launched in 2020, working towards full transparency and continuous improvement to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. Today, the Trust Protocol works with more than 700 factories and manufacturers, and 40 brands and retailers, including Levi’s and Gap Inc.

Aligning with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Trust Protocol introduced its “farm-to-manufacture” theory of change – a science-based measurement and feedback process with the mission to bring quantifiable and verifiable goals and metrics to cotton production in the United States. in six key areas: land use, soil loss, water reduction, soil carbon, greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

The Trust Protocol measures the US cotton industry’s progress toward sustainability through data collection and independent third-party verification. This aims to give brands and retailers confidence that the cotton fibers in their supply chain are grown more sustainably with less environmental and social risk. The Trust Protocol also adheres to best practices regarding the social impact of the U.S. cotton industry, with criteria defined around worker welfare and operational management, including fair labor, safety and security. ‘hygiene. Winegrowers who cannot comply with these measures cannot become members.

Aligned with the 2025 National Continuous Improvement Goals, the Trust Protocol also works with growers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39%, reduce soil loss by 50% and reduce energy consumption. by 15%, among other objectives.

To better understand how the US Cotton Trust Protocol seeks to bring transparency to the industry, BoF speaks with Dr. Gary Adams, Chairman of the US Cotton Trust Protocol.

Why is supply chain transparency increasingly important in production processes?

Along the supply chain, different entities increasingly want to know where the fibers come from and which companies are involved in each step of the process. Brands and retailers are held accountable by governments to the end consumer for sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. This message to consumers goes to brands and retailers, who send it back through the supply chain, which eventually reaches our cotton farmers.

The environmental benefits of more sustainable practices help producers and their partners meet consumer demand for more and more information about how products are made. These practices also allow cotton farmers to be more efficient with their resources and the way they run their own farm.

As a result, cotton farmers today realize that if they are to find a market for US cotton in the future, they will need to be able to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and supply chain transparency.

How does the US Cotton Trust Protocol enable supply chain transparency?

The US Cotton Trust Protocol began in 2017 by developing a set of standards and data requirements that US cotton growers must meet, with a focus on supply chain transparency, to help producers to meet the expectations of businesses and consumers on an international scale. .

Brands and retailers can see a supply chain transparency map, and all the companies involved – right down to American Cotton who started the process.

American cotton is a global commodity, with approximately 80% of our cotton production exported to mills around the world. Through the trust protocol and our verification process, we track the movement of products through the supply chain, so that every company involved in the manufacturing process of a product is recorded in the data. Brands and retailers can see a supply chain transparency map, and all the companies involved – right down to American Cotton who started the process.

Through this process, we also try to educate the international market about producing in the United States and help dispel myths and misconceptions that international factories may have about American agriculture. For example, of the 16,000 cotton farms in the United States, the vast majority are family owned, which tends to demonstrate a greater desire to operate sustainably and be responsible stewards of the land.

How does the US Cotton Trust Protocol work with fashion brands and retailers?

The success of this program depends on meeting the needs of brands and retailers, of which we currently have 40 member brands and retailers, including Levi’s and Gap Inc.

As members, we tell them what the trust protocol does, but it’s also an opportunity for us to hear what they want from a sustainability agenda – what issues are important to them, to what constraints they face and what specific measures or environmental indicators they focus on. We also talk with the producers to understand the needs that they also receive from the brands. Then we look at how we can work together and provide that data and information.

We know that many brands and retailers have committed themselves to sourcing responsibly or sustainably within a year from now. They all have different listings or programs they consider to meet those sourcing needs, and we are one of those programs they can turn to.

What is the US Cotton Trust Protocol verification process?

We have multiple levels of verification, evaluating growers against our trusted protocol benchmarks through second-party and independent third-party audits of their performance. As a first step, the producer will complete a questionnaire, which details the fiber production processes and working conditions on the farms, from its management to the provision of personal protective equipment, appropriate training and signage on the health and safety rules. A “desktop” verification is then carried out by an administrator of the Trust Protocol program, via a virtual meeting.

The next level of verification involves a visit to the farm by a representative from a third-party group called Control Union Certifications for independent verification. During this process, they inspect documents and records while on the farm and can see some of the fields. So if there are, for example, specific practices that were cited in the questionnaire, they can see those practices first-hand. The staff will also talk to their employees and assess their responses, not just the producer himself.

A lot of it is about trying to provide better access to the ecosystem of people that producers rely on and educating them as well.

We review all results once they are received, and if there are any issues or discrepancies, growers have the flexibility to set timelines, depending on the severity of the discrepancy, to correct it. We are not trying to exclude anyone from the program, but rather to put in place a system in which we can identify ways to continuously improve the US cotton industry.

How do you make sure to involve the US cotton growing community?

First, we need a producer to be willing to commit their time and provide this data to the process. We’ve created an online platform that isn’t intimidating or cumbersome, but as user-friendly as possible. This is the first step – to ensure that the experience is not off-putting.

For the process itself, we offer resources to help the producer with quizzes, including educational videos to help them understand what is being asked of them. Our team of scientists will also review the data they shared, also looking for outliers, so we can go back and perform quality checks.

We also provide access to experts that cotton farmers could also engage with independently, such as crop consultants. So a lot of it is trying to give better access to the ecosystem of people that producers rely on, and to educate them as well. We want it to be as easy as possible and it will keep them engaged in the future.

What are your main focus areas moving forward?

We still have many opportunities to bring greater transparency to the supply chain. We need to look for ways to continue to streamline data collection, to better leverage the insights, and then deliver it to brands and retailers to help them achieve their goals.

We also need to further increase grower enrollment in the program, to include more of the grower production level. We have already listed approximately 1.1 million acres of cotton in the United States, spread across 17 states. This represents just under 10% of US cotton production. Our goal is to reach approximately 50% of U.S. cotton production by 2025.

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