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In a COVID-19 World, Brands Need to Earn Customers’ Trust Through Sustainability

As fashion brands and retailers use the silver lining of COVID-19 to strengthen their sustainability commitments, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol can help them demonstrate their sourcing and supply chain commitments to meet customer demand.

At the end of July, the US Department of Commerce reported that the United States experienced the sharpest economic contraction in its modern history. Amidst this seismic disruption, few would expect fashion brands and retailers to be spending money on sustainability programs.

A recent survey from the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol found otherwise. Just over half of the 138 company executives in sustainability roles surveyed have noticed a rise in demand for environmentally sustainable products. 

Brands are taking notice of customers’ changing demands and taking action to strengthen their sustainability initiatives. 43 percent of respondents said the COVID-19 pandemic had a positive impact on their future sustainability commitments.

It’s natural that conscious consumers are more cautious with their spending — they will want to be thrifty while also ensuring they are giving their money to retailers with whom they share values, especially in an unstable time. 

These companies are noticing this shift in purchasing decisions — and are justifiably concerned that customers will leave if they don’t improve their tune on sustainability. On average, respondents said that nearly half of their customers would go to a competitor if their business didn’t meet its sustainability goals.

“I agree that we can expect customers to be more deliberate in their purchases and perhaps even more price sensitive than they were before the pandemic. They’re going to be holding brands to a higher standard and be especially mindful of where they’re spending their money,” said Tara Luckman, the former head of sustainable sourcing at ASOS, and an advisor to the US Cotton Trust Protocol. “What this means for brands is that sustainability — and really evidencing what we are doing — will be front and center.”

Demonstrating sustainability commitments

The recent launch of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol — a system that measures key sustainability metrics on US cotton farms — provides brands with data to prove they are meeting their commitments in areas such as greenhouse gases, water usage and soil carbon.

In response to the growing demand for apparel brands to demonstrate their environmental credentials, the environmental performance of Trust Protocol cotton is measured and analyzed at field level. The FieldPrint analysis — devised by Trust Protocol data partner Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture — illustrates in graphic form the progress of Trust Protocol growers.

“Brands will be able to see farm-level data on how US farmers are improving their yields, minimize water and chemical inputs, and leaving healthy soil for future seasons and generations,” said Andrew Jordan, Former VP of Technical Services for the National Cotton Council, and U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol sustainability data advisor. "The data that it provides is really something brand new — it both allows brands and retailers to demonstrate their commitments to their science-based sustainability goals and allows us to walk with US cotton growers on a road of continuous improvement.”

The Trust Protocol can provide full traceability from the farm to the laydown. The United States requires a unique identification number be assigned to every bale of cotton. That Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) provides retailers and brands with the ability to trace US cotton throughout the supply chain. 

“The COVID-19 crisis, and resulting industry shutdown, has given us an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent our business processes and services,” Luckman said. “This is the time for us all to re-examine how to source more responsibly and to integrate new data into sustainability strategies.”

As fashion brands and retailers find the silver lining in COVID-19 and strengthen their sustainability commitments, the Trust Protocol can help them demonstrate those sourcing and supply chain commitments to meet customer demand.

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