February 8, 2022
“I think as long as we meet the needs of our customers, cotton has a bright future, but the needs of our customers are changing.”
Those are the words of Louisiana farmer Ted Schneider as he encourages his fellow cotton producers to sign up for the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a program that measures the sustainable practices of cotton production them and provides brands and retailers with proof of the continuous improvements being made to U.S. cotton.
“We are in a supply chain of a very large industry. Brands and retailers, spinning mills really like U.S. cotton, but they need sustainable cotton — more accurately they need proof we’re growing cotton sustainably,” Schneider said.
Across the globe, brands and retailers are being challenged to meet the growing demand from consumers of products made with 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. In other words, 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.
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 Textile Exchange’s 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge.
“As long as we provide what our customers need, they will stick with us. We just need more producers to participate and realize it’s for the good of their industry and the good of their operation,” Schneider added.
Trust Protocol: farmer’s perspective
Full disclosure, Schneider is on the board of directors for the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. He served as the original chairman of the sustainability task force that started developing the program in 2017. But he said first and foremost, he’s a farmer who understands the challenges and time constraints his fellow growers are facing.
“One thing farmers need to be aware of is that cotton farmers had a very big part in the design of this program,” Schneider said. “Besides me, there were four other cotton producers on the taskforce. From the producer standpoint we stressed that we needed to keep this as easy as possible.”
“I don’t have time to spend on anything else, and I know other producers don’t either. The protocol was designed with that in mind,” he continued. “We tried to create a program that would satisfy the needs of apparel stakeholders while not overburdening producers.”
The process of signing up has been a hurdle for many farmers, but Schneider insisted the time investment is worth it. As the deadline for enrolling the 2021 crop looms — March 31, 2022 — he walked us through his experiences with enrollment and verification.
The process begins by completing a self-assessment at the website trustcotton.org. The assessment is around 110 questions on basic production practices. It sounds daunting, but Schneider said it took him only 20 minutes to complete. As the crop is growing, participants fill out a field-to-market assessment on 10% of their cotton acres.
“It’s not an onerous process at all,” Schneider said. “By the end of the year have that survey complete. And that’s it. It takes maybe an hour and I’m no computer expert.”
After completing the assessments, producers may get verified by a second- or third-party verifier. Schneider said he has been through the Trust Protocol second party verification with his son.
“Second party verification was a zoom meeting. It took 20-30 minutes. They wanted to see records. We just had to show them. They asked questions about labor and how we had chemicals stored. It was a good process. There’s no pass or fail. My son was apprehensive about the meeting beforehand, but it was a good process. There’s no penalty if you have some things wrong. The program is about continuous improvement and that’s what we’re trying to measure. It’s just to help you improve and provide for the needs of the customers,” he said.
Third party verification is more thorough, requiring a farm visit that typically lasts a few hours. Only a portion of participants are selected to go through verification, and Schneider has not experienced the third-party verification process firsthand. However, Shane Stephens, vice president of cotton services and warehousing for Staplecotn said he has been on dozens of third-party verification visits and has yet to see one go badly.
“I know growers have anxiety about these visits, but once they’ve gone through it I haven’t had a single grower — not one — say this was a bad experience. The Cotton Trust Protocol verifiers are not there to “get” anyone. They are just there to complete this necessary step of any verification program. To check the box that says you’re doing what you say you’re doing.”
Pay now or later
Staplecotn helped enroll more than 200 growers to the Protocol for the 2020 crop, according to Hank Reichle, president and CEO of Staplecotn. The company has dedicated field staff to assist growers in completing their online assessments.
“Right now, growers are not having a hard time selling cotton, and joining the Trust Protocol may not seem like a priority, but we’re convinced that sustainability and traceability are going to be part of our future,” he said.
Reichle said demand is there for verified sustainable cotton, what’s lacking is supply.
“From a marketing perspective, one of the key growths in the world is U.S. Cotton. The tighter our balance sheet is because we’re able to be the number one choice of textile mills around the world, the higher the price of cotton is going to be. If our industry will embrace the fact that we need to certify more of our cotton, that will give us an even larger advantage on other growths. It will help us sell more U.S. cotton, which will in turn push the price up,” Reichle said.
Stephens likened the need for joining Protocol to the expression pay me now or pay me later.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time. We know farmers in many cases are running multi-million-dollar operations on very tight margins and demands on their time are extreme, but if we can get them to spend a little bit of time now and enroll in the Protocol, that’s going to be much better than going through the painful process later where you lose market share and have to earn it back.”
One thing that will make enrollment easier for 2021 is that consultants are now able to complete online assessments on behalf of producers.
Another hurdle for joining the Trust Protocol that Schneider sees is farmers wanting to improve their operations before signing up.
“Mark Twain had a quote that goes continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. I think a lot of farmers are waiting for delayed perfection instead of realizing they’ve been on a journey of continuous improvement for a long time,” he said. “We just need to provide that data to our customers. This thing allows us to tell a story. If we don’t take control of the narrative, there are others out there who are telling our story, and it can be very uncomplimentary to agriculture.”
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