SPONSORED CONTENT – There are a lot of myths about the growing of cotton and many of these have regrettably gained traction within the global apparel industry, giving this wonderful, natural fibre a bad name at times – which it scarcely deserves. For instance, we are told cotton is a thirsty crop, mainly through the assertion that it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of the fibre.
This misleading claim has been repeated so regularly that it has somehow gained considerable traction in the fashion sector.
The myths around cotton and water use are among many which the US Cotton Trust Protocol is looking to dispel, while at the same time providing some much-needed clarity and insight for brands and retailers about the business of growing cotton.
There is an irony here: apparel brands and retailers are the world’s largest users of cotton. We’re told repeatedly by businesses they want to understand those areas furthest upstream in their supply chains, but does that understanding exist? But how many of them have genuine insight into cotton farming operations?
Perhaps more pertinently, how many know that the US has made massive strides over the past decades in lessening the impact of its cotton growing sector in terms of reductions in water-use, GHG emissions and energy use?
Here we touch on another industry misconception. The US is known for producing ‘conventional cotton’. While that phrase now has negative connotations in some quarters, the fact is that the US is home to some of the most progressive agricultural techniques in the world.
Dr Gary Adams, President, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, says: “When it comes to sustainability, US cotton has a rich and compelling story to tell. Brands and retailers have for years being saying they want better data and transparency from their supply chains to support their marketing claims and to meet broader sustainability and climate targets. With the development of our unique cotton assurance system, which draws on ‘live’ sustainability metrics directly from US farmers, we are now ready to deliver.”
For the uninitiated, the US Cotton Trust Protocol is a voluntary farm-level sustainability programme which documents best management practices being used by American cotton producers.
The Trust Protocol underpins and verifies US cotton’s progress through sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification. Choosing Trust Protocol cotton provides brands and retailers with data-backed evidence to show the cotton fibre element of their supply chain is more sustainably grown with lower environmental and social risk.
About US cotton
In the US, there are an estimated 16,000 cotton farms, creating more than 125,000 jobs and contributing to US$21bn in direct business revenues. This scale means the US cotton sector is in a position to have a huge, positive environmental impact.
US cotton farmers are operating against the backdrop of a fast-changing industry. Fashion brands which use cotton are under growing pressure from consumers, NGOs and regulatory bodies to reduce their impact on the environment – and demonstrate the ways in which they are doing so.
While the quality of US cotton is widely recognised in industry circles, tangible data – in terms of water use, GHG emissions and so on – has hitherto been relatively thin on the ground. The Trust Protocol is changing that picture, supporting US farmers in telling the world about their work and progress by enabling them to present their sustainability progress in a clear, coherent way.
To offer an idea of progress in the US cotton sector, consider the following: over the past 35 years, US cotton producers have reduced their water use by 79 per cent per bale. Energy use has fallen by 54 per cent, greenhouse emissions are down 40 per cent and land use per bale is down by 49 per cent.
The US cotton sector has seen the introduction of practices such as minimal tillage, GPS and sensor-driven precision agriculture, and the growing of winter cover crops to further improve soil health, slashing loss and erosion by 37 per cent per acre and increasing soil carbon levels.
Dr Adams see these different elements combining to form into regenerative agriculture. He says: “When regenerative processes, such as those focusing on soil health or water management, are implemented successfully, the health of the agriculture ecosystem and farmer economic stability can be improved. This is regenerative agriculture working to the benefit of the crop, nature, and the grower.”
Already, members of the US Cotton Trust Protocol are using some of the most sophisticated farming techniques in the world to drive incremental sustainability gains.
These include precision agricultural technologies such as:
- Computer driven moisture sensors to improve water efficiency by alerting farmers to periods of sufficient rainwater.
- Soil Moisture Probes which provide water level measurements at a series of distances below ground level, helping cotton farmers to understand if the crop is receiving enough water at all levels. By receiving a picture of the soil’s moisture, farmers can irrigate their fields more efficiently – if irrigation is needed at all.
- Evapotranspiration Weather Stations to measure both the evaporation from the ground but also the transpiration from the crop, so farmers know exactly how much water to replace.
- Computerised “pipe” planner apps
- Low pressure energy application (LEPA) application systems
Regenerative agriculture aimed at rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity
The gains made by the US cotton sector offer a compelling story for brands and retailers, an increasing number of which have been signing up to the US Cotton Trust Protocol. Signatories include major brands such as US casualwear retailer Gap, British fashion brand Next and luxury men’s brand Byford among others.
On the production side, the Trust Protocol publicly welcomed mills and manufacturers from the U.S. and Latin America, starting relationships in the US with Buhler Quality Yarns, Cap Yarns, CCW, Contempora Fabrics, Cotswold Industries Inc., Frontier Yarns, Hamrick Mills, Inman Mills, Parkdale Inc. and Swisstex Direct. In total, over 300 brand, retailer, mill and manufacturer members have become members since enrolment opened in July 2020.
“Across the supply chain, from manufacturers to brands and retailers at the top, we see businesses understanding the need to operate in a more sustainable fashion,” continued Dr. Adams. “Many are choosing to match their targets to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the Trust Protocol aligns with through its measurable commitments. For instance, two-thirds of U.S. cotton already uses no irrigation and our commitment to reduce water use further aligns with SDG 6 towards clean water and sanitation. Similarly, our greenhouse gas reduction goal is in line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement and can be used to support Science Based Target Initiatives.”
Integral to the US cotton sector and the Trust Protocol is a process of continuous improvement. The initiative has set targets for cotton farmer members to increase land use efficiency by 13 per cent, reduce soil loss by 50 per cent, reduce water use by 18 per cent, increase soil carbon by 30 per cent and slash GHGs by 39 per cent, all by no later than 2025.
Measuring these and other cotton metrics among farmer members is the Trust Protocol’s Field to Market Field Print Calculator which tracks farms across eight metrics. These are:
land use; soil loss; energy; water use efficiency; greenhouse gas; biodiversity; water quality index; soil carbon index.
These metrics provide tangible evidence of the link between field operations and agronomic practices with sustainability outcomes.
They also allow sustainability teams at brands and retailers to get a bird’s eye view of the issue of cotton sustainability – gaining practical, real-life insight into the work US farmers are doing to ensure the cotton used in their products is grown more sustainably.
For more information and details on joining visit: www.trustuscoton.org
How the protocol measures sustainability
The Trust Protocol monitors progress by quantifying field level environment impacts across eight metrics using Field to Market’s Fieldprint Calculator and independently verified through Control Union Certifications.
Control Union Certifications (CUC) has certified over 150 programs worldwide, including working as a key partner in the early development and piloting phases of Field to Market’s Impact Claim Verification Protocol.
Field to Market created the Fieldprint Calculator as a tool for growers to use to measure the environmental impacts of crop production management practices and identify opportunities for improvement on their farms, field by field.
Where previously this data was provided every five years, through the Trust Protocol growers will have access annually and will can drive efficiencies year-on-year.
Longer term, as enrolment in the Trust Protocol grows with multiple years of data, aggregate, year over year Fieldprint data derived from Trust Protocol members can be provided to member companies.