The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, launched in mid-July of 2020, promotes cooperation between producers and retailers to promote cotton's sustainability message to consumers.
The program responds to a growing consumer population that desires products that are sustainably sourced. The data-backed and third-party verified program allows producers to demonstrate their stewardship of the land to consumers.
Gary Adams, president and chief executive officer of the National Cotton Council, answered a few questions about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.
Can you tell me a little about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and what kickstarted the idea to launch the program?
"For a little bit of background information, the cotton industry has been developing the program for the last two years. The driving force behind the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol came from what we were hearing from brands and retailers in the textile supply chain. They were saying customers for U.S. cotton were increasingly wanting more information about product sourcing.
"We know there is scrutiny on the textile supply chain and how things are produced, but we, as an industry, wanted to be able to respond to the needs of retailers and consumers by showing how U.S. cotton is being responsibly produced and sustainable.
"The other factor that led to the Trust Protocol was the desire to set goals in the industry to continue to strive toward more sustainable practices. As we examined U.S. cotton production as a whole, we saw the cotton industry has a great track record for shrinking their environmental footprint, being more productive, and being more efficient with resources, but we wanted to continue to look into the future and set goals for how we could continue to shrink our footprint. We see the Trust Protocol program as an intentional effort to enroll producers and help drive us toward industry-wide goals."
How does the program work for growers?
"We went through a pilot phase with about 300 producers back through the latter half of 2019. When a producer enrolls, there are two primary requirements. The first requirement is to complete a questionnaire about farming practices, which is approximately a hundred questions divided into nine major categories that deal with areas such as nutrient management, water management, tillage practices, worker relations, etc.
"A data tool tracks the questionnaire's inputs on a percentage of their fields. The data tool provides a field print analysis, and once those requirements are met, the next requirement is that producers are subject to a random sampling for verification. We feel that's an important step in terms of the credibility of the program and conveys an even stronger message to our customers about the great things U.S. cotton producers are doing.
"For more information on how to become a member of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, growers can go to https://trustuscotton.org/."
I know the program just launched, but how has the acceptance been so far?
"We have received a lot of positive feedback. A lot of the work we've been doing up to this point has been with the producers to address their concerns about the program to create a system that works well with them. We know they've got a tremendous amount on their plate already in terms of managing a farming operation, so we've taken a lot of pains to try to address their concerns. Also, as we have talked to the brands and retailers, the feedback has been positive.
"The focus on sustainability is continuing to increase, and I don't see that changing even during some of the challenging economic conditions we find ourselves in right now. Consumers still desire transparency and want additional information about their products. That's only going to continue to increase as we go forward. The U.S. cotton industry and producers need access to all the marketing channels and need to be able to demonstrate the sustainable practices our producers have been doing for decades.
"I believe we have a very positive story to tell consumers, and they will be receptive to it. A part of this is being able to convey this message to the consumers, brands, and retailers, but also, our goal is to give our producers an opportunity to examine their farming operations for areas where further changes can be made. Hopefully, this will be beneficial not only to producers' environmental footprint but also be beneficial to their bottom line."
Has COVID-19 had any effect on signups for either producers or sponsors?
"I think it certainly has affected it in terms of trying to continue to promote the program. We had to change our approach to promoting the program since we had several in-person events scheduled for this summer. That has not been possible due to the pandemic. As a result, we've shifted to more virtual meetings and webinars, and we'll continue to do some virtual events.
"As we have discussions with the brands and retailers, they are currently focused on some economic challenges, so that has given some pause on membership consideration. However, we will get past this in terms of the COVID-19 situation, and the economic situation will improve. We have conducted surveys that would suggest the focus on sustainability has only increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, once we get past the worst of the economic challenges, we will be ready to respond to the needs of the textile supply chain."
What are the objectives for the 2020 season and what does the industry hope to achieve?
"As we move through this year, one objective is to target enrollment by approximately 500 producers. That is what we are hoping to achieve. Another objective as we move into the second half of 2020 is to continue to raise awareness about the program among the textile supply chains. Now that the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is launched, our job is educating on what the Trust Protocol is and its benefits. We're going to continue spreading the word through virtual meetings over the next several months."