Raising the Bar on Cotton Sustainability

Perhaps part of the reason it’s so difficult to nail down a definitive definition for sustainability is that its core word – sustain – contains no less than eight different options. Its primary definition “To keep in existence; maintain” tells most, but not all, of the story. Yet, add one of the secondary definitions “To prove or corroborate; confirm,” and you get a better feel for the what and why of the cotton industry’s newest and most ambitious sustainability effort.

Programs such as Cotton LEADS and Better Cotton Initiative have successfully provided solid information on cotton sustainability to the textile supply chain for several years. But, as an increasing number of textile brands and retailers are continuing to look for more standards and verification regarding cotton production, it became time for the U.S. cotton industry to take steps toward a more consistent, standardized measure for sustainability to meet market needs.


Setting Goals

“Thanks to the progression of technology in cotton over the past 35 years, we’ve come a long way in terms of sustainability,” said Dr. Jesse Daystar, vice president and chief sustainability officer for Cotton Incorporated. “We’re much more efficient. During that time, soil loss has decreased by 44%, and water use efficiency has climbed to 82%.

“For a long time, we focused on what we had done, but brands have said that’s not enough today,” he added. “Things have changed, and we need to know where we’re going and how we can be part of that.”

In response, the National Cotton Council (NCC) appointed a Sustainability Task Force to gather information and answer questions based on the needs and requests from the textile supply chain. That information, in turn, was used to develop sustainability goals for the U.S. cotton industry to meet by the year 2025.

“Defining sustainability is an important component of this effort,” explained Daystar. “We want to meet the needs of the present, while improving for the future. Preserving is a great level to start at, but improve is a higher bar to achieve.”

Based on consideration of a number of key performance indicators, six goals were set for the industry to achieve:

  • A 13% increase in land use efficiency
  • A 50% reduction in soil loss
  • An 18% increase in water use efficiency
  • A 15% reduction in energy use
  • A 39% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions
  • A 30% increase in soil carbon

“We wanted to come at this from a broad perspective to see what made the most sense and help us benchmark ourselves into the future,” said Daystar.

The recent announcement of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol will put the tools in place to help achieve and measure cotton’s ambitious goals.

A Message of Continuous Improvement

Now under development by the NCC, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol will provide a means to establish standards and verification for U.S. cotton, as well as demonstrate continuous improvement in sustainability.

The Protocol will be a voluntary program requiring enrollment by cotton producers. It is being developed as a user-friendly, website-based program that will allow enrolled growers to monitor their sustainability progress and, eventually, be able to compare their numbers with those for their geographic region and/or the entire Cotton Belt.

Development and management of the Protocol will be handled by Ken Burton, a 26-year veteran of the cotton industry who joined the NCC in January as Executive Director for the program.

“We all know that our producers work and work hard,” he said. “They have a great product and love their jobs. And a high percentage of them are already sustainable because of the laws and regulations they have to follow, as well as the amount of technology they’ve invested in their operations. Plus, a lot of them are family farmers who want to continue to preserve their lands for generations to come.

“But, with all that said, it’s not enough for some brands and retailers,” he continued. “If there are opportunities for U.S. cotton, we want to make sure we’re available to all companies. We don’t want to be left out because we’re missing some data that’s important to the textile supply chain.”

Here’s how the Protocol will work.

The first step is enrollment. Producers will follow directions on the Protocol website’s welcome screen to provide basic information such as name, farm location (state and county) and cotton acreage. They will then be asked to create a username and password that will allow them to log in to the Protocol site when needed.

Second is a self-assessment covering nine different categories – soil health, nutrient management, water management, crop protection, harvest preparation, wildlife habitat, fiber quality, traceability, and farm management. Producers will be asked to answer approximately 100 questions covering these topics using one of four answers:

  • I do this now for most of my fields.
  • I am trying this on one or more of my fields.
  • I will consider in the next three years.
  • It is not applicable to my farming operation.

“We had a workshop in January where we asked several producers to go through the enrollment process and complete the self-assessment,” said Burton. “From start to finish, it took about 30-40 minutes to enroll and complete the questions. We want it to be easy for producers. A lot of the topics we’re covering are items or information that most growers already provide as part of government programs.”

After finishing the self-assessment, enrolled producers must agree that they are using a data tool such as the FieldPrint Calculator or other qualified data product to collect and monitor data for best management practices.

The final step for producers to complete is a statement of commitment to responsible production practices to help safety and environmental awareness and continuous improvement.

“As far as the data tool, at some point during the year, producers will have to input data into their selected tool in order to be a Protocol member,” explained Burton. “If they don’t enter data, their cotton will not be considered Protocol cotton.”

Verification Is Key

Second or third part verification of Protocol information will be key to establishing the transparency desired by the market. Under the Protocol plan, verifiers would review the answers from producers to help make sure the requirements of the Protocol have been completed. Third party verification would be done on a random sampling basis.

The NCC is hoping to enlist groups, organizations or companies – businesses like merchandising firms, marketing cooperatives, merchants, gins, warehouses and others who are touch points with producers and have an interest in seeing them involved in the Protocol – to assist with recruitment and verification. These groups – or “aggregators” – are seen as a key to the Protocol’s initial success.

Speaking during the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in January, NCC President/CEO Gary Adams stated that it’s important to get the first producer-related components of the Protocol right. Without producer participation, he noted, the chances of meeting the 2025 goals are lessened.

“Eventually, as we build this out, we want to look at what data can be passed out of the Protocol and aggregated for the textile supply chain,” said Adams. “This is an area where we’re continuing to look at what types of traceability may be required and what it will take to meet the needs of the customer. We’re keeping it flexible, but it’s certainly a component that will be fleshed out as we move forward.”

Pilot Program This Year

The Protocol website, self-assessment questionnaire and other details have been in continuous internal review for months. The next step planned is a pilot program with selected producers – likely beginning this summer – to help evaluate and continue development of the Protocol. Burton would like to have at least 200 producers on board for the pilot program.

The goal is to officially launch the Protocol in January 2020.

“The Cotton LEADS program has done a fantastic job in helping people see U.S. and Australian cotton as sustainable,” said Burton. “And that’s good enough for many of the brands and retailers. Others, however, want to see the details through an actual process with standards and answers on the inputs that growers are putting into their land and farming operation. The biggest thing is the verification process. They want to know that second or third party verifiers will visit enrolled farms and make sure growers are doing what they say they’re doing.

“That’s the big thing about the Protocol – being able to show that transparency through our program,” he added. “A brand and retailer will be able to see the process from the farmer all the way to their goods. We want to show the traceability of the process.”