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An Effective Sustainability Plan Needs Group Effort

“Your sustainability strategy should be as open as possible. It should not be limited to one single solution that ultimately could limit your supply chain options,” stressed J. Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer of Cotton Incorporated, speaking Wednesday in New York City at the 28th Apparel Importers Trade and Transportation Conference by the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) and the American Import Shippers Association (AISA).

He added: “There’s no one-size-fits-all option, no one single type of program that’s going to fit all companies.”

Take American Eagle Outfitters, for example. The teen retailer became a member of both the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) when it embarked on a mission to step up its supply chain responsibility.

American Eagle works with more than 300 factories in 21 countries around the world. Rather than build its own program from scratch, the retailer’s sustainability team chose to leverage industry programs already in existence.

“We are a major producer of denim and tees and we use an amazing amount of cotton. So we looked to see what program was available that impacted water and chemical use and management and we decided to join BCI,” explained Michelle Tarry, director of responsible sourcing at American Eagle, noting that the retailer is currently working with various mills throughout its supply chain to increase the amount of sustainable cotton used in its products.

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But don’t dive in blindly or problems will inevitably follow, and don’t implement a particular program just because it seems like a good idea.

“While we knew we had a lot of cotton in our supply chain, doing an analysis was very impactful to my leadership in that I saw just how major our cotton footprint was,” Tarry said, adding that combining American Eagle’s cotton use with a goal to reduce its impact on water led the retailer to join BCI, a nonprofit that’s focused on creating a raw material that’s more sustainably available for suppliers and brands. “There are a lot of different options out there and we hope to get involved in some others but for us, Better Cotton was the best fit for our first approach in this area.”

Daren Abney, BCI’s membership engagement manager, agreed.

“Figure out what’s relevant for your brand and take it on a step at a time,” he advised, describing a raw material landscape as “critical” to any brand’s sustainability strategy. “What change is going to be most impactful for your business?”

For some retailers, including Macy’s and Kohl’s, the Cotton Leads program is helping move the needle. Introduced by the Australian and U.S. cotton industries, the joint program pioneered the investments, practices and national infrastructures necessary to put cotton production practices on paths to continual improvement.

But it’s worth remembering, as Worsham said, that all fibers have strengths and weaknesses, even those considered more responsible. That’s why it’s important to have a suite of options.

“Are you interested in driving transformation? Keep in mind we’re trying to transform the industry and there are different ways of doing that for different countries,” he said. “The exciting thing about the cotton industry is that no matter what country you’re talking about, efforts are now underway to help drive sustainability and we think we’re going to be around as a fiber for many years to come and continuous improvement is on the rise.”