Sustainability isn't just something that's nice to do anymore. It's something the U.S. cotton industry must do to maintain consumer confidence, market share and profitability from farm to retail.
"We will not see sustainability go away," said Gary Adams, president and CEO, National Cotton Council, during a sustainability panel discussion at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Austin, Texas.
Adams and other speakers emphasized that the cotton industry — brands, manufacturers and, perhaps most important, consumers — expect fabric purchases to be produced sustainably.
"Sustainability is one more aspect we need to talk about from the U. S. industry perspective to make sure we can convey all the positive attributes of U.S. cotton," Adams said. "Whether that's the quality the textile supply chain needs or the reliability the textile supply chain gains from sourcing U.S. cotton, we need to make sure that when they source U.S. cotton, they're sourcing a fiber that's produced in a responsible manner," Adams said.
He added that the council hears from producers who wonder if these efforts simply add to reports, paperwork and regulations they already endure. "We hear the attitude of 'why do I have to do this?' They see this as one more management burden. They know they're farming in an efficient and responsible manner."
Adams concedes the point. Farmers have been reducing cotton's environmental footprint since the 1970s, decreasing soil loss, reducing water use and producing high-quality fiber with fewer pesticides.
"We can trace that all the way back to the 1970s in terms of how producers have continued to improve," he said. "That's been an economic necessity in many cases; improvement has been required. Being as efficient as possible with resources has been the only way our farmers have been able to remain profitable.
"U.S. cotton producers have a long history of adopting technology, making use of the best management practices, and reducing their environmental footprint," he added.
"For the future of U. S. cotton, and to maintain the demand base, we must make sure that we continue to improve."
The push now is to promote and verify that progress to an increasingly environmentally conscious public.
Recent efforts to that end include Field to Market in 2006, Cotton Leads in 2013, Cotton USA Sustainability Task Force in 2017, and the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in 2018 (https://bit.ly/2RsdYNj).
Adams said each of these endeavors includes multiple entities working together to promote cotton as a sustainable fiber. Involved parties include farm organizations, the textile industry, environmental groups, and major apparel (and other fabric product) brands.
It begs the question: What does sustainability mean?
Jesse Daystar, vice president, sustainability, Cotton Incorporated, Cary, N.C., said sustainability may be difficult to define and goes beyond environmental stewardship. The concept also considers social responsibility, championing equality, supporting vulnerable communities, monitoring child labor abuses and offering product traceability.
"Transparency and product traceability are really high priorities," he said.
Some aspects of sustainability are "more humanistic and some are more technical," Daystar said.
He said efforts such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol help tell cotton's story and relates to consumers.
Consumers, Daystar said, want more information about products.
He cited recent research from the Nielsen Consulting Group that shows eight in 10 consumers believe companies should follow a sustainability program.
"They also found that about 75% of millennials want more transparency. They like transparency, traceability, and believe social issues really matter. Generation Z [respondents] are even more critical. A survey shows that 50% will make purchasing decisions based upon whether a company is viewed as sustainable or responsible.
"They've grown up with this mindset and they will be making decisions based upon how they see sustainability in their clothing, their food, anything they buy.
"We did some research at Cotton Incorporated, polling consumers. We asked Generation Z respondents to answer questions [about their concerns]. Climate change was the top one; 34% ranked it as either the top one, two or three concern, along with pollution and too much waste."
Daystar said, "Generations younger than I am don't have a lot of buying power today, but guess what, they're coming up."
He said young people are making their voices heard and represent the future of retail purchasing power.
"Their eyes are on us and that's something we all have to accept. As Gary said, it's not going away. So, how do these consumers know which brand is a high performer or a low performer?"
He said one measuring stick is Filthy Fashion, a source that rates brand sustainability. He said Levi's scores high with Filthy Fashion as a sustainable brand.
"[Brands] don't want to be at the bottom," Daystar said. "Those are not scoring high in commitment to climate and sustainability."
Companies are taking public concern seriously. Daystar said a vehicle to track sustainability, The Global Reporting Initiative for Sustainability, came out a few years ago.
"It's something like an end of the year financial report for stakeholders, but more encompassing. It includes financials but is more focused on sustainability and social issues. Now, 93% of the world's largest 250 companies use this. It is something investors want to see."
It's important for cotton production, too.
Daystar said textile manufacturers and brands "are seeking cotton from a particular program, perhaps the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. So, big brands are being held accountable for what they're doing."
Cotton is responding.
Sustainability goals for cotton production include increasing soil carbon capture by 30%, improving land use efficiency, reducing soil loss by 50%, reducing energy consumption by 15%, improving water use efficiency by 18% and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 39%.
Daystar said irrigation is the main driver of water consumption in cotton production. "So, this is where we see the impacts that tell us where we want to get better. Maybe we can be more efficient with fertilizer use. We can reduce our energy and greenhouse gas emissions."
Daystar, Adams and others explained how the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol will help reach some of the industry's aggressive sustainability goals.
The protocol will rely on farmer participation, self-assessments and verification of sustainable practices they employ on their farms.
"We're really interested in working with the folks in this room to achieve these goals," Daystar said. "We want to communicate and implement practices we know to be sustainable."
Adams said cotton has a strong case to make for sustainability.
"You know, we've been sustainable for a long time, before it was a newly coined phrase, in terms of responsible production practices."
The goal now is to educate consumers.