The Increasing Need for Sustainably Grown Cotton

A little more than a year ago, the National Cotton Council of America (NCC) launched a pilot program of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. The NCC conceived the Trust Protocol as a way of reducing the cotton sector’s environmental footprint and to help the industry realize certain sustainability goals over a six-year period. These included a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 39% and cutting soil loss by half, among other objectives.

Beyond those numbers, the initiative’s Board of Directors and Advisors has stated its ambition to substantially respond to American consumers’ interests and concerns over product sourcing, a key component of sustainable agriculture.

Overall, the concept of sustainable agriculture has had increased adoption over the past few years, but the term itself is often misunderstood. Sustainable agriculture isn’t reflexively synonymous with organic production, for example. Nor are sustainable practices incompatible with business-friendly and cost-efficient operations by farms, distributors and suppliers.

As the University of California puts it, ag sustainability intends to “meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Far from being mutually exclusive, in other words.

A renewed focus on sustainability comes at a time when consumers are more conscious than ever before about the origins of their food and clothing, as well as the effect of their production on the world. Platitudes are not enough. The same year the Trust Protocol pilot was launched, the United Nations unveiled its UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion at the Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, with a stated goal of stopping the “environmentally and socially-destructive practices” of the industry. Numerous clothing producers, including top consumer brands and chain clothing stores familiar to everyone, have embraced commitments to more sustainable production over the past five years.

Cotton is a naturally occurring fiber, and compared to other products like polyester and bamboo, it doesn’t need a chemical process to be converted into usable, wearable fabric. But because cotton is grown in arid conditions, its production requires an ample amount of water. Some studies suggest producing enough for a single t-shirt uses more than 2,700 liters of water.

With good reason, statistics like these are increasingly publicized, and the urgency of conversation around employing sustainable practices has grown. And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to place nearly every precious natural resource under fresh and prolonged strain, the pursuit of sustainability has taken on even more relevance.

Gary Adams, president and CEO of the National Cotton Council, who was interviewed recently by Delta Farm Press, is optimistic. He said the cotton industry at large had a strong track record for shrinking its environmental footprint and being more efficient with resources. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol’s intention was just to sharpen those existing strengths, in other words.

For growers, they are introduced to the platform through a user-friendly questionnaire about farming practices, running the gamut from nutrient and water management, tillage practices, worker relations and so on. Then, they are subject to a random sampling to verify their data. Not only does this help producers compete against themselves in improving their sustainability, it also provides accessible, transparent data to be accessed by the wider industry.

Over a year into the platform, and Adams says that responses to the Trust Protocol are promising and positive, including from brands and retailers such as Levi Strauss & Co. These brands also have access to annual aggregate data showing water use, greenhouse gas emissions and land-use efficiency, among others. With promising data on its side, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is now being presented to European markets and has launched in China.

Data insights enable farmers to learn about their land and apply new techniques to grow more sustainably – not only what’s planted in the ground but as a business and as an agriculture community of producers.

The Seam is honored to provide farmers with the technology to access this data, through our work with the Trust Protocol and many other organizations. Collaboration and innovation, traceability and transparency – they all work together for the common goal of sustainable agriculture.

This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal.

Mark Pryor is the Chairman and CEO of Memphis-based The Seam, a leading provider of food and agribusiness software and trading solutions, which is celebrating its 20th year in business. He serves on many industry boards, including Secretary of the Board at Agricenter International. Pryor was also named to the inaugural Board of Directors of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in December 2019 as an advisor.

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