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ESG Outlook: Gary Adams of U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol on Sustainability Misconceptions

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Gary Adams, president of U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, discusses the cotton industry’s collective efforts since the organization’s recent launch.  

Gary Adams U.S. Trust Protocol
Gary Adams, president, U.S. Trust Protocol Courtesy

Name: Gary Adams

Title: President

Company: U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement?

Over the past couple of years, the entire U.S. cotton industry has collectively worked together, from growers to brands and retailers to NGOs and academic to create the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. Officially launched in the fall of 2020, the Trust Protocol is a farm level, science-based program that sets a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton. It 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.

The Trust Protocol underpins and verifies U.S. cotton’s sustainability progress through sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification. The initiative also provides brands and retailers the critical assurances needed to source U.S. cotton. Brands and retailers will gain access to U.S. cotton with sustainability credentials proven via Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, measured via the Field Calculator and verified with Control Union Certifications.

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The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol focuses on three pillars: continuous improvement central to U.S. cotton production; the only program to offer unparalleled, measurable and verified data for brands and retailers; and the world’s first sustainable cotton fiber to provide a fully transparent supply chain for all members.

The program helps create a new standard of more sustainably grown cotton, building off of the efforts of U.S. growers from the past 35 years but also trying to constantly improve growing practices through innovation, knowledge sharing and advancements. There are currently 16,000 cotton farms in the U.S. and regulation and quality control assures safe labor, worker welfare and responsible stewardship. The U.S. cotton industry has created more than 115,000 jobs and contributed to $22 billion in direct business revenue.

What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes?

Innovation and data are key. I want to make sure that I am minimizing the impact on the environment with any purchase, and the only way to truly know that is by knowing the statistics of brands and retailers. For example, Gap Inc., a Trust Protocol member, has a goal of sourcing 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2025, and shown its commitment. Levi Strauss and Co. (another Trust Protocol member) has set out to use 100 percent more sustainably grown cotton, focusing on decreasing water use, cutting carbon emissions, and reducing fertilizer and pesticide to have a more sustainable and circular product strategy. I try to shop at stores that have made strong commitments to improving their impact on the environment, and can back that commitment up with real evidence.

How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

It’s important that you asked about practices as opposed to goals as those can be evidenced. I’ve always been particular about my purchases, but since the Trust Protocol launched, my behavior has changed. When shopping, I now find myself always checking the label so that I can better understand where the product is from, what it is made of and how it was made.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?   

Being a part of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol means that my attention to sustainability extends outside the fashion industry and spills into home, textiles and more. For me, that has meant taking my philosophy on shopping and bringing it into daily life as well as my home. Many of our grower members also recognize the importance of sustainability throughout their lives as they work with the land and environment every day. In fact, the livelihood and ability to give the next generation the same opportunities lies with the health of the land.

Although the Trust Protocol is focused on setting a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton, the practices that our members are implementing on their farms lead to better soil health, reduced water use and greenhouse gas emissions. These improvements impact industries outside of fashion and we are committed to helping U.S. cotton producers continually improve their sustainability efforts.

What is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

Many believe there is not enough accurate information on sustainability and that it is difficult to know what makes a piece of clothing sustainable. While some companies claim sustainability without being able to provide specifics, thus losing confidence of their consumers, brands like Levi’s, Gap Inc. and Tesco have joined the Trust Protocol to combat that issue. The program provides data in six key sustainability metrics—land use, soil carbon, soil loss, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and water use. It’s the first initiative to create a fully transparent supply chain for members.

Another major misconception in the industry is that cotton production uses a huge amount of water. Despite its reputation, cotton is not a water-intensive crop. It has been bred to be drought tolerant, and in many parts of the world, it relies solely on rainfall. In the U.S., about two-thirds of cotton is produced without any irrigation at all. U.S. farmers are constantly improving and using new innovations to reduce water use. Precision agriculture and water irrigation innovation has helped U.S. cotton reduce water use by 79 percent over the past 35 years. By utilizing technological advancements to map their fields, farmers can track where water is needed, ensuring they are not overusing this resource. Low flow and drop irrigation systems, which were first developed in the U.S., help significantly reduce water waste and loss due to evaporation. Furthermore, the Trust Protocol is committed to helping U.S. growers decrease their water use by an additional 18 percent by 2025.

The Trust Protocol is aligned with the 2025 U.S. national goals for continuous improvement for U.S. cotton including:

  • 13% increase in land use efficiency
  • 50% reduction in soil loss
  • 18% reduction in water use
  • 30% increase in soil carbon
  • 39% reduction in greenhouse gases
  • 15% decrease in energy use

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

Our research found that 61 percent of brands and retailers experienced an increased demand for sustainable products from consumers. We understand that now more than ever, brands and retailers need critical assurances that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is more sustainably grown with less environmental and social risk, and the Trust Protocol is providing those assurances. The pandemic highlighted the desire and need for sustainability throughout the supply chain as customers are more conscious about the products they use and are more willing to exercise their buying power to increase sustainability.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

Having a holistic view of every step throughout the supply chain is imperative for brands and retailers. As such, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol has chosen to work with TextileGenesis as a third-party platform and service provider giving us the power to say the Trust Protocol is the world’s first sustainable cotton fiber to offer full transparency across the supply chain on the platform. In combination with the Protocol Platform, The TextileGenesis platform will allow the program to record and verify the movement of U.S. cotton fiber through the entire process by capturing and verifying article level transactions between the multiple participants along the complete supply chain.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

We know that consumers and stakeholders are demanding more sustainable products, and while many brands and retailers have set meaningful goals surrounding water use, circularity and more, they need data and transparency along the supply chain to examine their impact and practices. The Trust Protocol provide brands and retailers the critical assurances they need that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is more sustainably grown, as it is the only program that offers a fully transparent supply chain to all members and data from the farm.

But those commitments are only impactful if we all follow through and help other companies do the same.