The majority of fashion today is made of synthetic, fossil fuel-derived fibers such as polyester and some vegan leathers. But this comes at an environmental cost. These materials not only dip into nonrenewable resource supplies, but they also contribute to the industry’s waste volumes since they cannot biodegrade.
In contrast, cotton comes from nature and can go back to nature as it biodegrades at end of life. Adding to cotton’s sustainability profile is the fact that all parts of the plant serve a purpose. Byproducts of cotton lint processing—including stems and seeds—can be used by other industries.
“If brands and retailers are seeking to create more sustainable clothing or consumer goods, choosing to source natural fibers over synthetic fibers is a great start,” said Dr. Gary Adams, president of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. “Cotton is a plant and is inherently circular. It is grown from the earth, can be reused and recycled in a variety of ways, and biodegrades when it is ultimately returned to the earth. When you combine cotton’s natural properties with the regenerative practices of many Trust Protocol growers, you get a more sustainably grown natural fiber.”
Cotton grown in the United States in particular is subject to strict regulations around labor practices, pesticide use, water and more. Back in 2009, Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture launched its first report analyzing farms’ use of land, irrigation water and energy, as well as greenhouse gas emissions and soil loss between 1987 and 2007. This data informed its Fieldprint Calculator, which gave farms the means to benchmark themselves against peers in their state and nationwide.
Over the past 35 years, developments in technology and processes have helped cotton growers improve on a number of metrics. They achieved decreases in soil loss (37 percent), water use (79 percent), energy use (54 percent), greenhouse gas emissions (40 percent) and land use (49 percent).
To further improve cotton’s environmental profile through data, the industry launched the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in 2020. This initiative aims to create a new standard in sustainably grown cotton by measuring farms’ progress in six key areas: land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency. In 2020, the Trust integrated the Field to Market sustainability analysis into its tool for growers.
“We provide a robust data collection and analysis infrastructure that has been aggregated and verified,” Adams said. “This data allows Trust Protocol growers to drive continuous improvement across the six key sustainability metrics.”
In 2020/21—its first crop year—the Trust Protocol enrolled 950,000 cotton bales, representing 6 percent of the total cotton grown in the United States. During the second year it doubled the number of U.S. cotton growers in the program, with an estimated 1.1 million cotton acres enrolled.
Greenhouse gas reduction efforts often focus on energy use, but an effective way to lower emissions from crops is improving soil health. One means to accomplish this is through low- or no-till practices. By not disturbing the soil, carbon in the dirt remains sequestered instead of being released into the air, and micro-organism biodiversity can thrive and help create nutrient-dense soil. In the 2020/21 pilot year, 52 percent of the Trust Protocol-affiliated growers used no-till practices, 27 percent were using reduced tillage and just 21 percent used conventional tilling practices.
Another way to support carbon capture is planting cover crops in winter, which draw carbon from the atmosphere. In the Trust Protocol’s first year, participating growers showed soil health improvement, and two-thirds had a positive value in the Soil Conditioning Index.
Maintaining soil conditions also extends to preventing erosion. The Trust Protocol is aligned with the 2025 National Goals for Continuous Improvement, set by the U.S. cotton industry, and aims to reduce soil loss by 50 percent compared to 2015 figures. Growers already exceeded this target in 2020/21 with a 78 percent drop in soil loss. Contributing to this result, 51 percent of growers had erosion control structures in place in most of their fields, and 24 percent had them in at least one field. Meanwhile, 31 percent had windbreaks (wind-slowing plant barriers) in most fields, while 14 percent had them in one or more fields. Additionally, the number of farms using conservation tillage methods—which leave some crop residue atop soil to protect it from erosion—increased by 79 percent compared to the 2015 representative group and the average SCI index was 0.5, indicating greater confidence that soil carbon is increasing.
One of the misconceptions surrounding cotton concerns pertains to water consumption volumes. Cotton has been bred to be drought tolerant, allowing it to grow in drier climates. Around two-thirds of U.S. cotton uses almost no irrigation and one-third uses irrigation to supplement rainfall, leaving just 2 percent that relies on irrigation alone.
The Trust Protocol is targeting an 18 percent increase in water use efficiency by 2025. In the 2020/21 crops, members made a 14 percent improvement, marking significant progress toward the goal.
“Achieving improved sustainability outcomes is a journey, and its success is dependent on many factors—from fostering collaboration and a collective sense of purpose, to delivering consistency across all activity that will drive change,” Adams said.
Click here to learn more about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.