Cotton is one of the most used fabrics within the fashion industry and beyond, but what makes it sustainable? Drapers meets cotton expert Gary Adams, president of the US Cotton Trust Protocol, to find out more.
A crisp white T-shirt. Classic blue jeans. A cosy pair of socks. These are just some of today’s everyday wardrobe staples worn by people across the globe – and each typically is made with cotton. Produced from a naturally grown crop all around the world, cotton is arguably one of the most important fabrics at the core of the fashion industry.
But, as sustainability continues to rise up the agenda for many of fashion’s leading brands and retailers – driven by both stakeholders across the wider industry and consumers themselves – how can the fashion industry do better for the environment in relation to this fibre?
Many brands are addressing the need for change in sourcing materials. Some have made bold public commitments to sourcing more sustainably: Levi’s has pledged to source 100% of its 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, particularly when it comes to avoiding greenwashing? With lots of different growing markets around the world, what qualifies as “sustainable” cotton?
Drapers speaks to Gary Adams, president of the US Cotton Trust Protocol, to find out what his definition of “sustainable” cotton is.
There are a lot of conversations happening across the fashion industry about “more sustainable cotton”. Why is it such an important topic?
I believe the shift towards producing clothes in a more sustainable manner has been driven initially by brands and retailers’ desire to deliver on preserving our planet for future generations. This push has been further fuelled by a more discerning stakeholder group – made of consumers, shareholders and regulators – demanding more sustainable clothing.
In research conducted by the US Cotton Trust Protocol in 2021, half of brands and retailers said that in the next 12 months they expected to see an increase in customer spending on sustainable apparel. Brands and retailers are recognising where the demand from their customers is coming from and responding accordingly with a greater focus on the materials they source.
But why target cotton in particular? Cotton is second only to polyester as the most-used fibre in the fashion industry: it accounts for 24% of all the fibres and fabrics used by brands and retailers globally, research by sustainable tech solution Common Objective shows. That's 26.2 million tonnes annually.
What that means is, if we as an industry can continue to make improvements to the way we grow cotton – for example, by reducing our water use and greenhouse gas emissions – then it can add up to big 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 across the world, all with different conditions, soils, climates and regulations. Finding a common definition across all these varying elements can be tough.
Also, traditionally the industry has lacked access to data, which has made it harder to define sustainability. From the outset, we knew the Trust Protocol had to provide members with field data behind the cotton they purchased, making that data more accessible.
We think more sustainable cotton shows high environmental performance and continual improvement against six key environmental metrics: reduced water, energy, land use, greenhouse gas emissions and soil loss, and increased energy efficiency.
The US cotton industry has set sustainability targets for 2025 in all these areas that we are aligned with, and our growers are working towards. By meeting these targets, US cotton can meet the credentials of what we believe to be “more sustainable cotton”.
Regenerative farming practices are also growing in prominence. What are these?
Regenerative practices are at the centre of how our growers produce their cotton. The aim of farming regeneratively is quite simple: to grow cotton in a way that is neutral or has a net positive environmental and social impact. US growers have been working towards this outcome for years, employing several different techniques to achieve it.
Operating a minimum-to-no-tillage [which is the agricultural preparation of soil by mechanical agitation of various types] policy to reduce soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions is one of the leading practices growers are employing today.
Our members also undertake “precision agriculture,” that uses technology such as GPS receivers, multi-spectral images and ground-based sensors to guide growers to only use the strictly necessary volume of water or other applicants.
Furthermore, by adding different plants to their cotton fields, US growers can positively impact their farms while also increasing yield. Cover crops – such as clover – are planted to benefit biodiversity and soil health. Similarly, natural field borders or buffer zones are grown to protect the topsoil from wind erosion and allow pollinator species to thrive.
How is data becoming more and more important to sustainable cotton growing?
More sustainable cotton growing can only be achieved through the use of consistent data collection. Without data, how can you measure the initial impact that your crop is having and any progress you make? This is particularly important in a world where greater transparency is being demanded of brands and retailers – data is essential to show exactly what you’re achieving.
From 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 Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture: Field to Market’s FieldPrint Calculator to provide our growers, as well as brands and retailers, with aggregated, annual field data from the US cotton fields. This means our growers can constantly assess where to make their next improvements and our brand members can receive the assurance that their raw materials are more sustainably grown.
The Trust Protocol is already seeing results. Could you tell us about this?
A lot of hard work and effort went into launching the Trust Protocol back in 2020, so I am immensely proud – as well as excited – that we are already yielding successes only one year on.
We view success in two ways: the first encompasses the fact we have already signed on more than 700 supply chain members, including many big-name brands and retailers. Our aim is to continue to grow quickly, creating a science-based sustainability initiative that spans the textile supply chain.
Second, we determine success as progress towards our environmental targets. In our inaugural annual report, published in late 2021, we released figures from the first year, with improvements evident across the board. These included an increase in water efficiency of 14%, reduced energy use by 15%, and reduced soil loss by a huge 78%. And as our growers continue to innovate, we expect our growers to maintain these numbers and strive to improve upon them.
Alongside the results we have seen, I’m proud that we have delivered on supply chain transparency for our members, as I know this is such an important issue for brands and retailers across fashion. Our Protocol Consumption Management Solution harnesses blockchain technology to record and verify the movement of US cotton fibre along the entire supply chain, beginning at the gin. In an industry that has previously struggled for transparency, we’re helping brands overcome this issue.
2021/22 Trust Protocol pilot results:
- Used 10 sq ft less land to produce a pound of cotton fibre
- Increased water efficiency by 14%
- Reduced energy use by 15%
- Reduced GHG emissions by 25%
- Reduced soil loss by 78%
- 66% of Trust Protocol growers had a positive soil carbon index value
What does working with the Trust Protocol bring to fashion brands and retailers? How will it help them reach sustainability goals in relation to cotton?
This is exactly the conversation we are having with brands and retailers every day. The answer is simple: not only will our cotton contribute towards their sustainable cotton sourcing commitments, which most leading brands and retailers have now, we also provide them with the aggregated field-level data related to our cotton.
Our vision is to set a new standard for sustainable cotton whereby full transparency is a reality alongside a central goal of continuous improvement to reduce our environmental impact.
Brands and retailers are also having to navigate a changing consumer landscape, in which style and price must compete with sustainability. In a world where consumers demand a greater understanding around how their clothes were produced and the environmental impact of that garment, brands want to be able to answer those questions. That’s where our third-party verified data can really benefit our members.
If brands want to know the average water or greenhouse gas emissions reduction of their cotton – they can see that. If they want to know the soil preservation of their cotton – they can see that too.
Fashion businesses need to be careful when it comes to issues around greenwashing, particularly when it comes to cotton and other fabric claims. What is your advice?
We are encouraging all brands – not just in fashion but all industries – to invest in and start using measurable, third-party verified data. It has been proven by industry watchdogs that there are a few players making unsubstantiated claims about their apparel, which is worrying as we should be moving the other way, towards detailed claims based on science and data.
From what we hear and see, most brands and retailers are keen to provide their customers and investors with the transparency they need around the clothes the company makes. Confidence is essential in the fashion industry and data is the key behind building confidence.
To find out more about how the US Cotton Trust Protocol can improve your sustainability performance, go to trustuscotton.org or email email@example.com.