Through new technologies, data collection and third-party verification, brands and retailers now have the critical assurances they need to show that the cotton fiber in their supply chain is more sustainably grown, with lower environmental and social risk.
It all comes down to water use. Whether it’s in our own personal lives or the brands and retailers we patronize, lowering our water use is a significant part of how we reduce our environmental impact. And it matters in the raw materials these brands and retailers decide to source.
Contrary to popular belief, cotton is not a water-intensive crop. According to Transformers Foundation, global averages about cotton’s environmental impact can be misleading, as they fail to capture huge local variations in resource usage and impacts. While global data can be useful to tell whether cotton’s overall impact is going up or down decade over decade, content and local data are key. Currently, two-thirds of cotton grown in the US is not irrigated, utilizing natural rainfall to grow. Roughly one-third uses irrigation to supplement natural rainfall and only 2 percent is solely dependent on irrigation.
Water-sensing technology helps growers map and track where water is needed throughout their fields. Irrigation-scheduling technology and drip irrigation ensure water is soaked into the ground. Growers can also measure water evaporation from the soil and plants. All these practices ensure growers are taking advantage of every drop of water. Thanks to these innovations and technologies, US cotton growers have reduced water use by 79 percent over the past 35 years.
The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol aims to tell the true story about US cotton and its water use. With growing demand for transparency about brands’ and retailers’ water use and their raw materials, the Trust Protocol sets a new standard in more sustainably grown cotton. It brings quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement to sustainable cotton production and drives continuous improvement in key sustainability metrics.
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It is a system that underpins and verifies US cotton’s sustainability progress through sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification, providing brands and retailers the critical assurances they need to show that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is more sustainably grown, with lower environmental and social risk.
In the face of climate change, brands and retailers have set comprehensive sustainability plans with significant objectives for their businesses. And US cotton growers are continuously improving their sustainability practices by employing new technologies to lower their water use.
Growers have introduced systems such as computer-driven moisture sensors — which improve water efficiency by alerting them to periods of sufficient rainwater and showing them water-level measurements at a series of distances below ground level. These advancements enable growers to understand if their cotton is receiving enough water at all levels. By receiving a picture of the soil’s moisture, farmers can irrigate their fields more efficiently — if irrigation is needed at all. Almost two-thirds of US cotton growers now employ some type of precision technology.
“We track every drop of water that we apply to our fields year-to-year,” said Aaron Barcellos, a Trust Protocol grower member from California. “We have soil probes in our fields and use satellite imagery. We have an agronomist that helps with irrigation scheduling and crop coefficients. All of these changes allow us to eliminate waste and put every drop of water to use.”
In 2020/21, Trust Protocol grower members showed significant improvement in water use increasing efficiency by 14 percent — compared to the 2025 US National Goal for Continuous Improvement of increased efficiency by 18 percent.
As a member of the Trust Protocol, mills, merchants, brands and retailers will gain access to US cotton with sustainability credentials proven via Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, measured via the Fieldprint Calculator and verified with Control Union Certifications.
Mill and manufacturer members can also be identified as part of a fully transparent supply chain, and selected by brands and retailers as they look to source more sustainably grown US cotton fiber.
The Trust Protocol has welcomed more than 560 brand, retailer, mill and manufacturer members since its launch in 2020 — including J.Crew, Madewell, Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc. and Gildan; and UK retailers Tesco and Next Plc.
It’s on all of us — growers, brands, retailers, mills, manufacturers and consumers — to use water more responsibly. The US Cotton Trust Protocol provides the verified data to show that we’re using less of our natural resources when it comes to the clothes we wear.
Become a member today at TrustUSCotton.org.