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Sustainable Cotton’s Infectious Buzz: Year One of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol

by Blair White

New generations of consumers focus on the origin and the story of products they buy. Brands and retailers are changing their businesses to provide that buying experience. The U.S. cotton industry is stepping up to ensure that it is the globally preferred fiber of sustainably produced textile and apparel. Meet the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is the leading sustainability initiative to help differentiate U.S. cotton as one of the most responsibly produced fibers in the world. As demand for more sustainable products builds, brands and retailers are taking big steps to provide the product and experience that shoppers want. Using science and technology, the Protocol ensures that U.S. producers can demonstrate their efforts to grow high-quality cotton responsibly. In turn, this can help put money back into growers’ pockets.

Jesse Daystar and Gary Adams

Gary Adams, CEO of the National Cotton Council of America (top) and Jesse Daystar, Ph.D., Chief Sustainability Officer at Cotton Inc. (bottom)

As CEO of the National Cotton Council of America, Gary Adams keeps sustainability in the cotton industry top of mind. The NCC is also a driving force behind the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.

“When you think about the mission of the Protocol,” Adams said, “it hinges on being able to engage with our producers and collect data from them on their sustainability metrics and production practices so that we can try to drive continuous improvement. The other objective is that the Trust Protocol gives us an opportunity to really talk about our sustainability as U.S. cotton producers with the textile supply chain.”

Jesse Daystar, Ph.D., Chief Sustainability Officer for Cotton Incorporated, is an industry leader also playing a crucial part in the execution of the Trust Protocol. With sustain- ability in both his educational and professional background, he serves as an advisor to the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol board, providing valuable recommendations and insight.

“From a grower perspective, the Protocol exists to make sure that we maintain our market access as a U.S. industry,” Daystar said. “Many brands have said that they are only going to source ‘preferred fiber’ or ‘sustainably sourced’ fiber, and what that generally means is the cotton has to come from a sustainability program.”

Since launching the pilot version last year, the Protocol has improved the enrollment process and data flow. By listening to feedback from pilot users, simple steps to make the self-assessment process quicker and specific to the region of participating growers helped speed up adoption.

“We’ve focused on three key things,” Daystar said. “First we focused on making it easier for the grower: less time, more accurate, better data, and making it more relevant. Second, we focused on further defining the value propositions to growers and to brands. Lastly, we focused on getting downstream demand and creating systems to get the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol cotton into the supply chain. We have a lot of interest from major apparel brands and have signed up Gap, Inc. amongst others.”

In the first year of its implementation, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol enrolled 300 producers across the Cotton Belt. Producers supplied information on about 660,000 acres of production in a secure, confidential system developed by The Seam®, an industry-lead-ing agri-software provider. There is intense interest downstream from the farm, too. “As we have been talking to the supply chain, we have seen increased interest from brands and retailers,” Adams said. “We already have some major brands, like Gap, Inc. and their associated brands, joining the Protocol. So far, about 30 brands and retailers are members.”

Brand interest in the Protocol is essential because demand for sustainably grown U.S. cotton decreases significantly without it. The quantitative data collected by this effort is more than just numbers. Those facts tell U.S. cotton’s sustainability story.

“We not only want to make sure cotton grown in the U.S. is well represented, but also that brands see cotton at large as a real opportunity,” Daystar said. “Many times, I think it’s a matter of personal pride that cotton growers can tell their story through this system. They can show that what they are doing, in a lot of ways, is really highly sustainable and more sustainable than generations before.”

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol has also been placed on the Preferred Materials and Fibers List by the Textile Exchange. This achievement helps provide further legitimacy and credibility with brands and retailers.

Future enhancements include the ability for the Protocol to pull data from farm management systems many growers already use in their operations. This development would help decrease the time farmers spend filling out the Protocol questionnaire.

“We know producers have a tremendous amount on their plate already just from man- aging the day-to-day activities of their farming operations, so we are working on ways to streamline data entry,” Adams said. “Growers collect so much data from those farm management systems, as well as the equipment they are using. We’re really trying to harness the power of that data entry – to capture that information and present it in a way that is meaningful to those customers.”

The benefits of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol are not just at the fiber level. The potential exists to help producers improve production practices that ultimately drive sustainability and profitability. The Protocol is integrated with the Fieldprint Plat- form from Field to Market®. Growers can use the Fieldprint Platform to compare their results to aggregated regional and state data that may help identify opportunities for improvement.

“The Fieldprint tool in the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is a benchmarker where you can see how your soil loss or water use efficiency compares to your neighbors and your state average,” Daystar said. “We are hoping that in the pursuit of more sustainable cotton production and continuous improvement, that cotton growers are really going to improve the agronomics and profitability of their farm because they can do things that actually make sense for sustainability and their operation. When you improve soil health, you have more drought resistance, and you can get a better soil structure and better nutrients. A lot of times, you can reduce your nitrogen inputs while maintaining yield, which lowers your greenhouse gas emissions. It’s really important to identify where we can improve both the sustainability and profitability of cotton production.”

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is off to a promising start in its first year of operation. Symbiotically, grower participation in the Protocol provides an opportunity for its success. In turn, the Protocol offers an opportunity for future farm profitability through increased market access for U.S. cotton.

“I think it’s better to be proactive and create something that is manageable and that works for you and is reasonable on your time commitments and requirements,” Daystar said. “If not, sustainability is coming one way or another, and it’s going to come from somewhere else. We don’t want that. Just as we are asking cotton growers to continually improve through their operations on the farm, we expect that of ourselves as well. The Protocol is going to continue to reflect how we can make it easier for producers, more streamlined, and more accurate, and how we can continue to provide value and increase the value we provide cotton growers. We recognize it’s their time and their commitment. It’s an agreement and acknowledgment that this is where we are today, and we are going to continue to get better.”

A single organization does not lead the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. The effort is a collaboration that spans from cotton industry groups to local cooperatives and is a prime example of going further together.

“This is a new initiative and is led by the cotton industry,” Adams said. “Its success will be dependent upon producers participating in the program. It all starts with the producer in terms of collecting the data and being willing to provide that in- formation so we can tell their story. As we look to the future and what it’s going to take to tell sustainability’s story, which is a very successful story, to be able to tell that is going to be absolutely critical to make sure that we can continue to find markets for U.S. cotton.”

Retailers Source Sustainable Cotton to Meet Environmental Requirements

Current events and public policy initiatives are influencing how brands and retailers approach sustainability. Many major retailers such as Under Armor, Target, Uber, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and more have signed pledges to let their customers and business partners know that they are working toward significantly reducing their environmental impacts. Not only do these goals and claims have data measurements to accompany them, but a deadline too. Many brands have sustainability goals to be completed within the next five to ten years, which is a big order to fill.

Where cotton is concerned, the same is happening. As retailers work toward increasing their sustainability, every product source is scrutinized. For apparel and textiles, brands need sustainably grown cotton to meet their environmental goals. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol helps elevate our cotton as a unique solution to meet their objectives.

“As the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, we actually measure the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per pound of cotton,” Daystar said. “We can give brands a baseline of information and then, through time, show how we are actually improving. The U.S. cotton industry has six sustainability goals, one of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent by 2025. So not only can we measure it, we have a goal of improvement through time. We’ve shown a track record of improvement, and we are working further toward improvement. All this positions U.S. cotton as a way to help meet brand sustainability goals. Brands have made commitments and are on the hook to deliver. They are looking for us to help and I think we have the ability to do so, and that’s valuable.”

Companies are also under pressure from their consumer bases to produce responsibly. Subtle differences in the origin or production methods can mean the difference between a successful product or a dud. For a brand to stay relevant in such an educated consumer environment, ignoring sustainability efforts is simply not an option.

“At the end of the day, consumers want a responsible and sustainable product,” Daystar said. “Brands need to do it now on the basis of doing business. It’s really demanded by investors, by consumers, and by non-governmental organizations that they have a strategy on sustainability.”

One significant advantage for U.S. growers is the tremendous investment in technology made over the past 50 years. Because there is so much data about each bale of U.S. cotton, the Protocol can leverage that information to provide a more comprehensive description of our fiber. Having those systems in place has enabled the industry to quickly deliver a solution that works for all levels of the supply chain.

“The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol goes above and beyond any other sustainability program in quantifying, tracking, and determining the environmental impacts of cotton,” Daystar said. “If a brand is really serious about sustainability, quantifying their improvements through time and meeting their goals, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is the leader in the ability to do that through the apparel industry. As that pertains to cotton, it’s the best system to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts and track that through time. If they want to have a data-driven strategy for improvement, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol delivers just that.”

Enrollment in the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is easy and only takes a small amount of your time, and is complete in four steps.

  1. Visit our website, www.trustuscotton.org, and click the Join Now button at the top of the page to begin enrollment.
  2. Next, complete the self-assessment. It will ask questions on your sustainable production practices in soil health, tillage operations, water use, and pesticide management, among others. This step takes about 30 minutes and just 15 for those re-enrolling.
  3. You will need to complete your field assessment that was built in conjunction with Field to Market. The benefit is that you’ll receive data that will enable you to confidentially assess where you stand on these key measurements compared to those in your region, state, and even nationwide. This step only takes about 45 minutes to complete.
  4. Lastly, we’ll ask you to commit to the continuous improvement measurements that the Trust Protocol has developed and confirm to have your data verified by second and third-parties.

If you have questions, please reach out to growers@trustuscotton.org.