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LONDON – Recent years have seen two issues rise rapidly up the agenda for fashion industry executives. The first is data, and particularly, the pressing need for better quality data to support environmental claims. The second is transparency. Fashion brands are under growing pressure from consumers – and in some cases, regulatory – to be more open about what they do and how they do it. There is particular focus here on supply chains. In many cases, these two issues converge.

Cotton supply chains have been a notable point of discussion where these issues are concerned. There is growing interest in the environmental and social impacts associated with cotton, alongside calls from industry stakeholders for more transparent information about the supply chain impacts of fashion.

We spoke to Dr. Gary Adams, president of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, to find out his thoughts on these issues. We asked, first of all, about the industry drive around transparency and data and how the work of the Trust Protocol dovetails with this.

He told Apparel Insider: “The Trust Protocol is encouraged by the calls for better data in the fashion industry. The change in mood around access to data is reflective of both developments in the regulatory landscape and the broader shift in consumer sentiment towards greater transparency. Minimizing the knowledge gap around textiles in fashion is vital to building greater trust between consumers and the brands they buy from. This is the context within which the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol seeks to make an impact. The Trust Protocol aims to be a catalyst to shift the textile industry towards further sustainability progress.

The programme enables this through a commitment to drive continuous improvement across cotton farming practices and establish transparency throughout the supply chain.

By delivering quantifiable, verifiable goals and measurements to the key sustainability metrics of U.S. cotton production, the Trust Protocol has been able to establish the difference that robust data capture, aggregation and reporting can make.”

A key talking point in the industry has been around data integrity. This is key as regulators around the world implement more stringent rules on how all industries underpin their sustainability claims.

On this issue, Dr Adams told us: “As with all industries, access to good quality data leads to greater efficiencies. Driving efficiencies is vital to the agricultural industry which is seeking to minimize its contribution to climate change. The Trust Protocol’s mission involves using good quality data to bring quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement to the key sustainability metrics of U.S. cotton production – land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy efficiency. This helps our growers strive for continuous improvement across their agricultural practices, improving on the environmental footprint of their cotton.

“The notion of continuous improvement has been enshrined in U.S. cotton production for decades, and in the past 35 years alone, U.S. cotton production has used 79 per cent less water and 54 per cent less energy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent, all while reducing land use by 49 per cent.

“Building on these results, the Trust Protocol uses farm level data proven via Field to Market and measured by the Fieldprint Calculator to provide benchmarks and ensure individual cotton farmers can easily identify areas where they can improve. In addition, the Trust Protocol incorporates comprehensive verification through both second-party and independent third-party audits – providing brands and their consumers with greater confidence in the sustainability of their cotton.”

A key challenge for the fashion industry lies in how best to connect the dots between the progress being made in their supply chains such as cotton and how these achievements can and should be communicated. We asked Dr Adams how the Trust Protocol can support fashion brands in fulfilling their regulatory requirements for better data and increased transparency.

He said: “The Trust Protocol works closely with fashion brands and retailers to build greater transparency across the supply chain and provide them with science based, data-led assurances for the sustainability of the cotton they buy. In recognition of the heightened desire for supply chain visibility to brands and retailers, the Trust Protocol is the world’s first sustainable cotton fibre programme to offer article-level transparency across the supply chain.

This is achieved through the Protocol Consumption Management Solution (PCMS) which records and verifies authenticated U.S. Cotton to finished products by tracking article-level transaction and production data directly from each member involved in the production process, beginning at the gin.

“This is a ‘fibre forward’ system, meaning that it is designed to capture details of transactions in near real time. Through the Trust Protocol’s data-led approach, our brand and retailer members are provided with confidence that our growers are stewards of the land, committed to driving developments in responsible farming methods and improving the environment for generations to come.”

Finally, we asked about the role of technology when it comes to continuous improvement and ensuring transparency. “Cutting edge technology plays a critical role in facilitating continuous improvements at a farm level,” Dr Adams told us. “The growing adoption of precision agriculture technologies such as GPS receivers, multi-spectral images and ground-based sensors have enabled U.S. growers to greatly reduce their impact on the environment by gathering field-specific data including soil conditions, nutrients, and water availability. Through maximizing the availability of good quality, real time data, growers are better equipped to deploy site-specific crop management practices to maximize yields and minimize crop inputs.

“Harnessing technology also serves as the cornerstone of the Trust Protocol’s mission to enhance transparency. The PCMS makes use of blockchain and other digital technologies to aid with tracking and verifying the movement of U.S. cotton throughout the supply chain as well as provide a Traceability Map. This map serves to track the names and locations of Trust Protocol mill and manufacturer members that were involved in the production process into the finished products. Beyond this, the PCMS also offers two levels of verifications for every transaction captured in the system, the first being through a blockchain-enabled inventory ledger system, and the second through commercial invoices and shipping documents.”

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