SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

Supply Chain
Farm-Level Data, Regenerative Practices Shaping the Future of US Cotton

These types of farming practices will ensure the soil used to grow cotton remains healthy enough to grow the crop year after year.

As more consumers around the globe want to know where their food and clothes come from, they have been placing a higher value on the manufacturing practices, materials sourcing and sustainability efforts of brands and retailers. For fashion, the supply chain can often be complex and opaque, adding to the difficulty of accurately communicating environmental characteristics of products. However, earning the trust of consumers will be critical for companies that want to succeed in a transparent economy.

So where does a fashion brand start to unravel its supply chain? Often at the farm, where raw materials are sourced. It can feel like a big leap to connect raw materials and farming practices to our clothing, but making clothes requires significant amounts of natural resources including water and land to grow materials such as cotton — the most widely used natural fiber in the world.

A focus on regenerative

In the United States, there are more than 16,000 cotton farms — and many have worked hard to reduce their environmental footprint. Over the past 35 years, US cotton production has used 79 percent less water and 54 percent less energy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and reduced land use by 42 percent. The adoption of practices such as minimal tillage, GPS and sensor-driven precision agriculture, and the growing of winter cover crops have further improved soil health — reducing loss and erosion by 37 percent per acre and increasing soil carbon levels.

Continuously improving soil health is critically important for the preservation of the planet. It’s also the basis of farmers’ livelihoods, which is why there has been a noticeable shift towards regenerative agriculture methods over the last two decades.

In 2020, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol was launched to share the work of US cotton growers with the world, while continuing to support the US in becoming a world leader in more sustainable cotton.

Trust Protocol growers often use regenerative ag practices to maintain and further improve soil quality. In addition to minimal tillage and the use of cover crops, common regenerative practices include rotational farming, precision agriculture, integrated pest management, and use of landscape-specific inputs. Over time, regenerative practices can increase productivity, nourish biodiversity, and naturally reduce the need for external inputs required for plants.

Additionally, more US cotton growers are setting aside in-field corridors and buffer zones that border cotton fields to grow back wild with native plants. These create natural habitats and food sources not just for pollinators and small birds, but also for larger species such as deer. Implementing field borders with perennial grasses allows pollinator species to thrive and improves the habitat quality for adjoining cotton-farmed areas, which also benefits the crop itself. Typically, growers will set aside land that is less efficient or with more challenging terrain, which in turn allows them to focus more efficiently on the most appropriate land for cotton production.

Verified, farm-level data

To measure the outcomes of these growing practices, the Trust Protocol tracks member data on soil conservation and soil carbon, as well as four other sustainability metrics — water use, GHG emissions, land use and energy use. This helps them measure their progress and identify opportunities to continuously improve. In 2021/22, member growers recorded a decrease in soil loss and an increase in soil carbon when compared to the 2020/21 group of growers. This year-on-year verified data is shared with Trust Protocol members across the supply chain and published in its annual report.

By collecting this data, the Trust Protocol is providing its growers with self-assessment and benchmarking capabilities to identify areas of improvement in their operations. For verification processes, all member growers are automatically placed into a regional producer group. The Trust Protocol then applies the square-root methodology to determine the number of second- and third-party verifications for that crop year.

The use of second-party, or desktop, verification creates a more robust and credible verification cycle and system. Third-party, or onsite visits, are up to a half-day visit walking through the farm as well as reviewing any additional paperwork required for the verification of the questionnaire and FPC piece. If selected, participating in a third-party, independent verification is necessary for the grower to be considered in compliance with the program and a Trust Protocol representative will help walk them through the process.

Transparency is key

There is opportunity to bring greater transparency to the cotton supply chain as the Trust Protocol program continues to scale. On September 14th, 2022 the program was awarded a USDA grant — in conjunction with the US Climate Smart Commodity opportunity — to build markets for climate-smart cotton and provide technical and financial assistance to over 1,000 US cotton farmers to advance adoption of climate-smart practices on more than one million acres, with a goal of advancing the production of more than four million bales of Climate Smart Cotton over five years.

These types of investments in farming practices will ensure the land used to grow cotton remains healthy enough to grow the crop year after year. By focusing on sustainable growing practices in cotton farming today, growers can improve the health of the land for decades to come.