More than ever before, consumers across the globe want to know that the clothes in their closets are sustainably sourced. So much so that research conducted by the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol—a farm level, science-based initiative that is setting a new standard in more sustainably grown cotton—found that 61 percent of brands and retailers have witnessed increased demand for sustainable products from consumers.
While demand for more sustainable fashion is pushing global brands and retailers to provide transparency and evidence that sustainable practices are being implemented and followed throughout the supply chain, is it enough?
Regenerative agriculture aims for more
Sustainability has been a focus of U.S. cotton growers for generations. Case in point, just over the past 35 years, U.S. cotton producers have used 79 percent less water and 54 percent less energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and land use by 49 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.
Yet, U.S. cotton growers understand that they must constantly improve in order to protect and preserve the planet—to ultimately help create more sustainable clothing.
That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in. As opposed to simply having a neutral impact on the environment, it goes a step further and aims for net positives with practices that better the land. U.S. cotton growers’ efforts towards continuous improvement are central to the Trust Protocol and the U.S. cotton industry taking sustainability to the next level. Practices such as conservation tillage and growing cover crops have helped soil health and improved soil carbon levels. Although U.S. cotton growers have been implementing these techniques for decades, these practices have recently been grouped into a manner of farming called regenerative agriculture.
The principles of a regenerative agriculture system are based in Indigenous ways of land management and are adaptive to local physical conditions and culture. These principles include:
- Minimizing soil disturbance
- Maintaining living roots in soil
- Continuously covering bare soil
- Maximizing diversity with emphasis on crops, soil microbes and pollinators
- Integrating livestock where it is feasible
Over time, regenerative practices can increase productivity and naturally reduce the need for external inputs required for plants. Common regenerative practices as reported in the Trust Protocol include cover cropping, no or low tilling, biodiversity, rotational farming, precision agriculture, integrated pest management and intentional use of inputs that are landscape specific.
Dissecting the data
The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is the only program measuring the impact and outcomes of these sustainable growing practices.
Regenerative agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all manner of farming. Instead, it looks at a combination of practices that support resilience, as well as building and nourishing our ecosystem. 2021/22 data from U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol growers shows:
- More than 55 percent of Trust Protocol acres were planted with cover crops, which encourage food security and reduce atmospheric carbon.
- Continuous reduced or no-till production increases the amount of soil organic matter near the soil surface, and in 2021/22, more than half of reported acres practiced no-till and 30 percent practiced reduced tillage.
- 70 percent of Trust Protocol reported acreage practiced crop rotation in 2021/22, which maximizes biodiversity by increasing soil organic matter, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and producing healthier soil.
- 70 percent of Trust Protocol reported acreage practiced integrated pest management (IPM), which is a science-based approach that strategizes tools and techniques to identify and manage pests.
When these regenerative practices are implemented successfully, the health of the agriculture ecosystem and farmer economic stability are improved. And ultimately brands, retailers, mills and manufacturers can provide consumers with the verified, data-based sustainable clothing they desire.
There is no finish line when it comes to sustainable practices or regenerative agriculture. Individuals and organizations continue to develop new technologies, processes and research that aid growers in further implementing new and innovative sustainable practices. Now more than ever, people care about the environment and how their clothes are made. And, while the distance from U.S. cotton fields to the runways of global fashion brands and consumer closets may seem far, the focus on regenerative agriculture has never been more impactful.
Click here to learn more about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.