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Cotton Apparel Sustainability Must Start With the Soil

With all the efforts made toward apparel industry supply chain sustainability, it really has to start at the beginning–which for natural fibers like cotton, means with the soil.

Speaking on the topic, and more broadly on “How Climate Change and Agricultural Practices Intersect,” at the Cotton Sustainability Summit in San Diego, two experts, each with a different perspective, delved deep into how it all starts with healthy land management and farming practices.

Marty Matlock, executive director of the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center, said, “Working with Field to Market, we’ve developed a process of continuous improvement to help define sustainable decision-making in agriculture. This process is transparent, it’s publicly knowable.”

Field to Market’s Supply Chain Sustainability Program offers U.S. farming, food and agriculture industries a tool for unlocking shared value for all stakeholders. The program engages in broad communication and collaboration with stakeholders that include many major brands and retailers to ensure a coordinated, outcome-based approach to sustainable agriculture that’s grounded in science.

The focus for Field to Market, according to Matlock, is “measuring and advancing the sustainability of commodity crop production, which of course includes cotton.” The process, he said, is “familiar to CEOs of major Fortune 100 companies and to soybean farmers in central Iowa. It is an intuitively understandable process–that is the key to making things better.”

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In the multi-stakeholder initiative, which includes conservation organizations and customers, Field to Market helps them define what is sustainable and the outcomes they desire. The producer initiatives then drive implementation. Through life cycle assessment, the results are measured for effectiveness.

“Cotton has made great strides in the efficiency and effectiveness of production in the last 25 years,” Matlock said. “We’ve seen a 35 percent increase in the total production of cotton in the United States, with only a 2 percent increase in planted area.”

Experts, he said, call this “freezing the footprint of agriculture–intensification of land yield in order to reduce the land pressure for land transformation.”

In conducting life cycle assessment analysis on a range of crops in the U.S. as it pertains to climatic impact, Matlock said, overall, cotton is “nearly greenhouse gas neutral crop and in some production systems you actually sequester carbon to the soil then you vent to the atmosphere.”

Roian Atwood, director of sustainability for Wrangler and Lee jeans at Kontoor Brands, said, “When we consider all of the challenges we’re face with operating as brands in the marketplace, there’s a lot of stakeholder critique out there as far as the sustainability of agriculture.”

This includes nutrient runoff into waterways and potential damage to ecosystems or loss of grasslands that are a habitat for potentially endangered species.

“So where our journey began was actually in the grassland management world,” said Atwood, noting that Wrangler recently joined the Field to Market alliance.

Atwood learned grazing land management from cattle ranchers, and then brought that knowledge to Wrangler.

“We asked ourselves ‘could we do this in cotton systems, what is the opportunity to do this in cotton systems?’ The answer was “absolutely, we can do this in cotton,” Atwood said. “We went on this quest for sustainable cotton and we came up with three key practices for a grower to adopt: the idea of cover crops–having a non-cash crop in the offseason to protect the soil, conservation tillage–creating an elegant precision tilling, and rotation–if you can have three different crops in a five-year timeframe that is the most beneficial to prevent pest buildup in soils.”

While all these concepts are viable, Atwood said if growers could come close to using these methods, they could sequester three times as much carbon in the atmosphere.

Wrangler’s history of beginning on the farm and ranch–the raised seams of Wrangler jeans are on the outside instead of the inside to prevent chafing–and its brand identity built on heritage, led the company to focus on the concept of land stewardship and, according to Atwood, the idea of soil conservation and protecting the environment “as a universal truth.”