The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol offers the cotton industry an opportunity to demonstrate cotton's sustainability and to answer questions of an increasingly inquisitive consumer.
Ken Burton, executive director, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, provided an update on the new industry initiative during the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Austin, Texas.
Burton explained how the voluntary program, under the auspices of the National Cotton Council, will work across the cotton production chain to educate the public about sustainability efforts producers are already taking.
The program works with producers who volunteer to perform self-assessments of ongoing production practices and initiate some "required and recommended" conservation practices on their cotton farms.
Burton said consumers are demanding more information about where products originate, how they are produced and what environmental impact they make.
Millennials and Generation Z, he said, "want to have a story behind their product."
Cotton has a good story to tell.
"This is our opportunity. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol allows you guys to tell an even stronger story to our customers."
Burton presented slides that show the progress cotton has made in reducing the environmental footprint over nearly a half century, beginning in the 1970s with improved management and enhanced environmental practices.
Field to Market came on in 2006 as a means to define and measure crop sustainability. Cotton Leads in 2013 began promoting cotton's environmental message to manufacturers, brands and retailers.
A cotton sustainability task force created in 2017 sought more information from the cotton supply chain to develop key environmental metrics and establish sustainability goals to be in place by 2025.
The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, created in 2018, carries that message further, measuring and tracking those environmental goals.
Burton said the protocol offers cotton producers an opportunity to share their message of stewardship to an audience beyond the farmgate. It also puts them in a position to help manufacturers, brands and retailers meet their consumer demands.
"We would like to make a pledge to these brands and retailers. We would like to enable brands to make their sustainability goals. We want to be a part of their solution.
"We want to be the supplier of choice," Burton added. "This isn't about one grower being more sustainable than another, or one bale being more sustainably produced than another bale. It's not about guaranteeing a premium. We're making sure that cotton is accessible in all markets."
He said the goal is for U.S. cotton to compete in every market and every supply chain. "We want to make sure we meet the needs for quality, cleanliness, timeliness and sustainability. We can't afford to lose market access because of a perceived lack of sustainability."
He said synthetic fabrics challenge cotton in the marketplace, primarily on price. "We want to reclaim market share. Over the years, we've lost a big part of our market share due to synthetics. How can we get some of the market share back?"
Working with retailers, manufacturers and brands to show cotton's advantage over polyester offers an opening.
"They want more information; they want to define standards; they want a verification process. We must be flexible with the ability to pass this data to these brands and retailers and help them."
He said it's not just about individual corporations but their investors as well who want information about cotton's sustainability.
The Cotton Trust Protocol, through information provided from the farmers who volunteer to provide their production information, demonstrates cotton's sustainability message.
The process starts with farmers' self-assessments, consisting of a 112-question questionnaire. Of the practices included in the assessment, 33% are required management practices and 67% are recommended management practices.
Assessment covers conservation practices such as soil health, nutrient management, water management, crop protection, wildlife habitat, air quality, traceability, farm management and worker relations.
"Self-assessment is an overall look at the farming operation," Burton said.
Verification, by an independent party is essential to the program.
Producers in the program use the Field to Market footprint platform to monitor progress. The system measures the environmental impacts of crop production.
Self-assessment will be an annual practice, Burton said.
The producer would input data from his farm into the tool. "That allows him to see the environmental footprint of his operation."
The assessments and verification will help the cotton industry achieve those lofty 2025 sustainability goals.
Burton said pilot enrollment began in June 2019 with "widespread enrollment in 2020. More than 200 signed up in 2019. We expect more than 2,000 will sign up by fall 2020."
Some key brands involved in the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol include the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, Tesco, Levi Strauss and the Louis Dreyfus Company.
Burton was hired a year ago to manage the program.
"It's been an education and it's an exciting program. In a year we've seen a lot of development and a lot of promotions. It's been quite a challenge but exciting."
He said education has been and will continue to be a critical part of the program.