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Experts Speak Out on Debunking Cotton Myths

Following up on Transformers Foundation’s “Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation” report, three cotton industry experts spoke out on “Debunking Cotton Myths” at the Sourcing Journal Sustainability Summit on June 1.

October’s investigative report on building critical data consumption in fashion was meant to debunk and refute what it claims is false information about how cotton is grown and cultivated. Summit panelists Dr. Jesse Daystar, chief sustainability officer and vice president of sustainability at Cotton Incorporated; Marc Lewkowitz, president and CEO of Supima, and Andrew Olah, founder of the Transformers Foundation agreed with the need to correct the record on misinformation tainting the popular raw material.

According to moderator Edward Hertzman, Sourcing Journal president and founder, the foundation’s report aims to address the many “fallacies around cotton and its impact on the environment.”

Olah said many in the cotton industry stared down the misinformation for years but struggled to correct the oft-repeated mistruths.

“We decided to really focus on it and do a report and try to ‘prebunk,’ which means to help people understand what to avoid in the future and debunk some of the existing myths,” he said.

Many stats around cotton’s water and chemical use, for example, were “true, actually, in 1995,” Olah pointed out, though “it’s not 1995” anymore.

Daystar agreed that some of the accusations about cotton might have been accurate at some point, but said “the one about water” was “never true,” citing Hertzman’s comment that growing 1 kilogram of cotton fiber requires 20,000 liters of water.

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“Cotton is a naturally drought tolerant crop,” Daystar said. “Commonly where you can’t grow any other crops, you can still grow cotton because it’s very flexible as to when it can accept the water and still make a productive crop. If you really look at cotton in the data surrounding that, in the United States, most of the cotton is actually not irrigated–the roughly 65 percent. Only 30 percent has supplemental irrigation [and] only 5 percent is fully irrigated. It’s important to remember that we use water, but use it efficiently and only when we have to maximize productivity.”

As for rumors on pesticides, Daytsar said global production of cotton uses about 3 percent of the land for cotton production and is responsible for about 4 percent four to 5 percent of total pesticide sales.

“So, it just clearly has never been true in that regard…and it isn’t true now,” he said. “These rumors have started and stopped and just kind of perpetuated.”

On the differences between organic and traditional cotton, Daystar said it’s true that synthetic pesticides or even synthetic fertilizers can’t be used in organic, but they do consume the same amount of water in the same environment.

“The data surrounding organic and conventional is from a lifecycle assessment that was done and taken out of context,” he said. “And that context is you’re comparing irrigated versus non-irrigated and that’s what drives the consumption and not whether it’s organic or conventional.”

Daystar said the claim that “cotton is a dirty crop” is “just not true,” and is “actually very reasonable particularly compared to other crops.”

“I think cotton has been a staple in our lives…for so long that there’s new fibers that really want a piece of that pie and they’re going to push whomever…down to push themselves up and they’re pushing that misinformation…to get a market share, to create a need for other products,” he said. “And that’s just really unfortunate, and particularly under the guise of more sustainability in those products.”

It’s critical for the industry to foster education on that front and make it easier for decision makers to choose the right sustainable option and understand cotton at a higher level, he added.

Lewkowitz agreed with Hertzman’s supposition that demand for sustainability disclosures has helped perpetuate poor data practices.

“If you’re looking generally in the sustainability space, there’s a lot of narrative and impetus to try to find ways to meet targets or goals or be competitive in the marketplace,” he said. “Based on the information that’s available, or the generic data set of information that you’re looking at assessing, you don’t necessarily get a really good perspective.”

Cotton, Lewkowitz said, is “a fiber that’s grown around the world, it’s 80 percent of the world’s natural fiber and is grown in a vast variety of different systems with different regulatory oversight, different varieties, different soil conditions, different farming practices and different cultural practices.”

“So, you can’t compare cotton collectively as one thing and then try and assign a sustainability narrative around that because that’s irresponsible, especially in the case when you don’t know where a crop is coming from,” he said. “A lot of the supply chain has this opacity built in, which is intentional because it hides the transparency about supply chain. So, what we are doing as an organization, and Transformers and Cotton Incorporated and a number of our brand partners, is trying to dig deeper into the nuanced data so we can bring out those kernels that are valid and responsible and say these are the starting points.”

“We may not be able to solve everything and we can’t make these big, audacious claims because we don’t have enough data,” Lewkowitz said. “We need to pull in the important pieces that we know something about and start adding on to it and being additive in that process of making impact as we go. And that way we can collect the data as we’re moving and then validate back to the origin where we started.”

In many ways, the responsibility for truthfulness falls on the brands because they are the ones directly connecting to the consumer, he noted.

“If they’re hesitant already about what a brand is messaging and then they hear about greenwashing or green wishing, it really becomes this nebulous space [where] it’s hard for them to make a decision,” Lewkowitz said. “We can’t expect them to be super informed on these things. We have to do a better job of having a simpler, easy, dial-back conversation about authenticity, about knowledge points that are meaningful and then serve as a platform.”

Daystar said trust is important in gaining consumer confidence, as is creating meaningful, deliverable goals. He always recommends consumers find a brand that does have stated goals, that are committed to making improvements, and that are taking meaningful action.

Some brands are saying “a lot of little things here and there that sound good, but they’re not going to get us to 2030 as we need to with certain reductions,” Daystar said. “As an industry, we need to have a larger solution that can be scaled. Finding, as a consumer, a brand that is reporting on their goals and has science-based targets, that has clearly demonstrated success in sports, that’s one thing. But then also, complex things such as climate change, water consumption…that requires a lot of science.”

But some things are simpler such as biodegradability, which is fairly relatable, can be claimed by a lot of different cotton products, and can be labeled right on the garment.

Olah said Transformers will update the report every year, and plans to amend the section on pesticides in the coming months.

“We’re going to do chemistry next year because not one person in this room knows if anything they’re wearing is toxic,” Olah added. “We have absolutely no knowledge on chemistry whatsoever. Our view for the foundation is…there should be a label on every garment just like there is on food, that tells you the exact environmental impact of that garment with science.”