Sustainability is the buzz word that keeps on buzzing. If you took a drink every time you heard “sustainability” at any agricultural conference or meeting you would probably be buzzed, too. Not suggesting you do that — just acknowledging that we’ve all heard the term so much, it has become a bit cliché. You are probably a little tired of hearing about sustainability. But before your eyes glaze over and you move on to the next story, I want to tell you about one of the more enlightening discussions on sustainability I’ve heard in a while.
It involved the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, the new third-party verification program that aims to measure and quantify U.S. cotton’s sustainability progress. Cotton growers are being encouraged to enroll in the program and self-report on practices such as land use and water management. The data provided by growers is third-party verified and the information is shared with brands, retailers, mills, and manufacturers throughout the supply chain — assuring them that the fiber they’re purchasing has been grown sustainably.
Thanks to consumer demand for products that are grown “sustainably,” efforts to track sustainable practices have trickled down the supply chain, with an increasing number of buyers only wanting to purchase fiber that has been certified sustainable. It’s a trend that is not going away, and some experts fear that cotton farmers who are not certified sustainable may lose out on sales in just a few short years.
The Cotton Trust Protocol enrolled around 300 growers last year — a good start but short of the 1,000 they were hoping for in their inaugural season. Why were growers reluctant to sign up? Michael Quinn, vice president of cotton operations for Frontier Spinning Mills in Sanford, N.C., believes many growers may not have grasped just what is at stake.
“Sustainability is important to me because it is important to my customer,” said Quinn as he addressed attendees of a multi-region producer tour hosted by Cotton, Inc. “And it’s becoming increasingly important to our customers that we can back up our sustainability claims with verified facts. If we can’t do that, we’ll soon begin to lose customers.”
Sustainable cotton? Prove it.
Speaking during a session on sustainability through the supply chain, Quinn, along with Debra Ferraro, vice president of global product development with Carhartt, spoke on the challenges of meeting the growing demand from consumers (especially consumers in their early 20s) for products made with certified sustainable cotton. As consumers’ appetites for sustainability have increased, false or misleading advertisements about products being “green” have multiplied. Thus, the growing demand for data that proves sustainability claims.
One popular data-driven initiative is the Textile Exchange’s 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge (SCC). It encourages brands to only use sustainably-sourced cotton by the year 2025. More than 80 companies, including Adidas, Levi’s, Gap, Nike, Ikea and Burberry, have already committed to sourcing 100% sustainable cotton within the next four years.
The 2025 SCC aims to reduce the climate crisis through regenerative farming practices. But no matter how well a producer manages for water quality, soil health, biodiversity, etc., if those practices are not certified through an approved sustainable cotton initiative, they don’t count.
“There’s a fear that there will not be enough certified sustainable cotton to meet the demand in 2025,” Quinn said.
Currently 30% of U.S. Cotton is certified either through the Cotton Trust Protocol, the Better Cotton Initiative or BASF e3. Brazil cotton is 100% certified, according to the latest annual report from the 2025 SCC. Quinn stated that 100% of Australia’s cotton acres have recently been certified sustainable, too.
Growers in the audience expressed concerns that U.S. cotton could be shut out simply because it’s not “considered” sustainable — with buyers turning to other countries to meet those demands.
“That’s where the Trust Protocol is going to help us compete,” said Quinn, who also serves as an advisor to the Trust Protocol. “It’s what we have to do to sell U.S. cotton.”
There’s no question that U.S. producers are using sustainable production practices. Can you even stay in business if you’re not farming sustainably?
Some might say the meaning of the word itself has become muddled, or maybe we’re all suffering from “sustainability fatigue,” but at the end of the day, sustainability is still about lasting – doing what it takes to stay viable in the long-term. Proving it to the world is now just another part of the process. If U.S. growers can’t sell their cotton without being certified, isn’t signing up for the program the sustainable thing to do?