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Optimising Sustainable Cotton Production for Fashion Businesses

The US Cotton Trust Protocol works with cotton growers in the US to produce fibres with a lower environmental and social risk in alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for members like Levi’s and Gap Inc.
Cotton farmer overlooking their field.
Cotton farmer overlooking their field. (Shutterstock)
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Raw material production accounts for an estimated 38 percent of the fashion industry’s total emissions. Each year, 26.2 million tonnes of cotton is produced for the textile and apparel industries, according to sustainable fibre and materials non-profit Textile Exchange. In total, the fashion industry contributes approximately 4 percent of total global emissions, as estimated by the Global Fashion Agenda and McKinsey & Company.

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

With the vision to set a new standard in sustainable cotton production, the US Cotton Trust Protocol officially launched in 2020, working towards full transparency and continuous improvement to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. Today, the Trust Protocol works with over 700 mills 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 fabric” Theory of Change — a science-based measurement and feedback process with the underlying mission to bring quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement metrics to US cotton production 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 sustainability progress through data collection and independent third-party verification. This aims to grant brands and retailers the assurances that the cotton fibres within their supply chain are more sustainably grown with lower environmental and social risk. The Trust Protocol also adheres to best practices regarding the US cotton industry’s social impact, with criteria set around worker well-being and farm management, including fair labour, safety and hygiene. The growers who cannot meet these measures are unable to become members.

Aligned with the 2025 National Goals for Continuous Improvement, the Trust Protocol is also working with growers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent, reduce soil loss by 50 percent and decrease energy use by 15 percent, among other goals.

To better understand how the US Cotton Trust Protocol is looking to bring transparency to the industry, BoF sits down with Dr. Gary Adams, president of the US Cotton Trust Protocol.

Gary Adams, president of the National Cotton Council of America.

Why is supply chain transparency increasingly important in production processes?

Throughout the supply chain, different entities increasingly want to know where fibres come from, and who the companies are that participate in each stage of the process. Brands and retailers are being held accountable, by governments to the end-consumer, on sustainable practices across the supply chain. That consumer message is making its way to the brands and retailers, who are sending it back down through the supply chain, which is ultimately reaching our cotton farmers.

The environmental benefits of more sustainable practices help the growers and their partners meet consumer demand, who want more and more information about how products are produced. These practices also allow cotton producers to be more efficient with their resources and how they manage their own farming operation.

As a result, cotton producers today are realising that, if they are going to find a market for US cotton in the future, they are going to have to be able to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and transparency in the supply chain.

How is the US Cotton Trust Protocol enabling supply chain transparency?

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

Brands and retailers can see a supply chain transparency map, and all the companies involved — down to the US cotton that started the process.

US cotton is a global commodity, with about 80 percent of our cotton production exported to mills around the globe. Through the Trust Protocol and our verification process, we track the movement of products through the supply chain, so that each company with a hand in a product’s manufacturing process is recorded in the data. Brands and retailers can see a supply chain transparency map, and all the companies involved — down to the US cotton that started the process.

Through this process, we also try to educate the international market about production in the US and help dispel the myths and misperceptions that international mills may have about US agriculture. For example, of the 16,000 cotton farms in the US, the vast majority are family-run, 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 programme depends on the ability to meet the needs of brands and retailers, of which we currently have 40 brand and retailer members, including the likes of Levi’s and Gap Inc.

As members, we tell them what the Trust Protocol is doing, but it’s also an opportunity for us to hear what they need out of a sustainability programme — what issues are important to them, what constraints they face and what specific metrics or environmental indicators they are focused on. We also talk to producers to understand the needs they receive from brands too. Then, we consider how we can work together and provide that data and information.

We know that many brands and retailers have made commitments of their own to be responsible or sustainably sourced by some future year. They all have different lists or programmes that they’re looking at to meet those sourcing needs, and we are one of those programmes that they can look to.

What is the verification process at the US Cotton Trust Protocol?

We have a couple of levels of verification, evaluating growers against our Trust Protocol benchmarks in both second-party and independent third-party audits of their performance. Firstly, the grower will fill in a questionnaire, which drills down into fibre production processes and working conditions on farms, from its management to the provision of personal protective equipment, appropriate training, and signage on health and safety regulations. A “desktop” verification is then done by a Trust Protocol programme administrator, conducted via a virtual meeting.

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

A lot of it is trying to give better access to the ecosystem of people that growers rely upon, and to educate them as well.

We look at all results once those come in, and if there are issues or discrepancies, the growers are given an opportunity to set timeframes, depending on the severity of the discrepancy, to correct it. We are not trying to take anybody out of the programme but rather set up a system where we can identify ways to continuously improve the US cotton industry.

How do you ensure you engage the US community of cotton farmers?

Firstly, we need a grower to be willing to commit their time and to provide that data to the process. We have created an online platform that is not intimidating or cumbersome but as user-friendly as it can be. That’s the first step — to make sure that the experience is not off-putting.

For the process itself, we offer resources to help the grower with questionnaires, including educational videos to help them understand what is being asked of them. Our team of scientists will also look at the data they have shared, searching for any outliers too, so that we can go back and do quality checks.

We also provide access to experts the cotton growers might engage with independently too, like crop consultants. So, a lot of it is trying to give better access to the ecosystem of people that growers rely upon, and to educate them as well. We want it to be as streamlined as possible and that is going to keep them engaged going forward.

What are your key focus areas moving forward?

We still have a lot of opportunity to bring greater transparency to the supply chain. We have to look for ways to continue to streamline the data collection, so we can harness information better and then provide it to brands and retailers to help them meet their objectives.

We also need to further grow producer enrolment in the programme, to include more of the production level of growers. We have about 1.1 million acres of cotton in the United States already enrolled, which are located across 17 states. This represents just under 10 percent of US cotton production. Our goal is to reach about 50 percent of US cotton production by 2025.

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