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Supply Chain
Collaboration, Not Competition, Is the Key to Affordable and Sustainable Fashion

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is a knowledge-sharing platform and partnership for the entire cotton supply chain. It offers brands and retailers better access to the cotton data that they need to be more sustainable.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit as the global fashion industry seemed to be correcting its course towards a sustainable future.

Adidas, like many large firms, has invested heavily in sustainability practices across its supply chains and driven sustainability — and thus has seen a 52 percent reduction in CO~2~ emissions in 2019. Newer, smaller brands such as Reformation drive better industry practices by placing sustainability at the core of its business — committing that 75 percent of all materials are natural, renewable or recycled.

But the coronavirus caused major disruptions to sales figures and production lines. According to the New York Times, apparel sales fell 79 percent in April after the first wave of COVID-19 hit. The industry has rebounded since, but it is still not operating at full strength; and in mid-October, COVID-19 cases began a resurgence across the United States and Europe.

To better understand the fashion and textile industries’ plans for improving sustainability standards and how COVID-19 had affected them, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and The Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed 150 executives of global textile and fashion businesses. Brands included H&M, Puma, Zalando, Adidas and VF Corporation — which owns The North Face, Vans and Timberland, among others.

All respondents were unanimous that their firms would not water down their sustainability targets in response to the global crisis, even though 63 percent felt that an economic recession would lessen consumers’ interest in sustainable goods. In fact, 60 percent of executives named sustainability as the second-highest strategic priority for fashion organizations — behind improving customer experience.

“The pandemic has been a wake-up call for a lot of people,” said Tara Luckman, Director of Flourish CSR and a consultant for the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. “The whole industry has been hit very hard, but this moment is an opportunity to reassess and bolster sustainability commitments in the face of a rapidly changing world.”

Brands and retailers are one of the leading drivers of sustainability in fashion. Companies with the most progress implementing their sustainability agenda all reported a common trait: They have spent time and money understanding the environmental impact of their supply chain.

Sustainability can be a massive undertaking and investment. There is uncertainty about consumers’ willingness to pay more for sustainable products, but 70 percent of respondents actually believe affordable and sustainable fast fashion is possible.

The survey showed the two ways that companies intended to build sustainability into their business plans during a pandemic. One was through investments, and the other was finding outside sources of data to track their progress. 73 percent agreed that global standards and certifications help measure and evidence a brand’s level of sustainability for consumers. But a quarter of respondents also saw a lack of available and easily accessible data as a barrier to collaborating on sustainability between brands.

“For sustainability to be meaningful, the textile supply chain must demonstrate continuous improvement and data collection throughout the entire process.” said Dr. Gary Adams, President of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. “The Trust Protocol provides the transparency necessary to accomplish that.”

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol fills the farm-level data gaps that brands and retailers have struggled to access in their efforts to be more sustainable. In joining the Trust Protocol, members can prove, measure, and verify that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is more sustainably grown with lower environmental and social risk.

The Trust Protocol brings quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement to sustainable cotton production and drives continuous improvement in six key sustainability metrics: land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency. Brands and retailers can use these data points to show progress against their committed pledges and goals. Enrolling in the Trust Protocol can help brands and retailers receive the data they need to ensure that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is sustainable.

The Trust Protocol allows for full supply chain transparency. At the gin, a unique credit for each kilogram of cotton ginned is issued. When the cotton is consumed by a brand or retailer, the credits are transferred along with the cotton to its new owner. Importantly, each credit is tied to the bale’s permanent identification number, enabling full transparency throughout the supply chain.

This new system gives evidence to the sustainability credentials that are proven via Field to Market, measured via the Fieldprint Calculator, and verified with Control Union Certifications. It is aligned with existing sustainability programs including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and is included on Textile Exchange’s list of preferred fibers.

Understanding the financial situation that we all find ourselves in with COVID-19, The Trust Protocol is not taking dues until July 2021 — which allows brands and retailers to use the interregnum as a pilot period.

The Trust Protocol is not only setting a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton — it’s also a knowledge-sharing platform and partnership for the entire cotton supply chain. Brands and retailers will have better access to the data about their cotton that they need to be more sustainable.