Sourcing sustainable cotton—whether it’s regeneratively grown, recycled or organic—has become a common goal for fashion companies looking to prove an eco-minded ethos.
Fashion for Good, a sustainability-focused organization whose partners include Adidas, Target and Chanel, is looking to investigate a new way to address some of the environmental issues associated with growing cotton, namely water and pesticide usage.
The organization introduced a two-year pilot Tuesday that it described as an “innovative combination of precision agriculture, environmental control and real-time data tracking.” The project, it said, looks to facilitate resilience for cotton farming in developing regions where climate and resources prove challenging for cotton cultivation.
Two of the organization’s corporate partners, Kering and PVH Corp., alongside Indian textile manufacturer Arvind Limited, will provide operational support and financial backing. Fashion for Good will manage the endeavor and help finance it through an equity investment in the firm behind the technology, Materra.
“Thirty-eight percent of the fashion industry’s carbon footprint lies with raw materials production, preparation and processing,” Fashion for Good managing director Katrin Ley said in a statement. “Innovations in this area, such as radically resource-efficient cotton farming, a staple [fiber] for the industry, [are] hugely important. This consortium pilot project brings together unique expertise from across the supply chain to pilot and ultimately scale this solution in key regions.”
Materra has run three consecutive cotton trials at its U.K. test site in Essex over the past two years, allowing it to generate its initial cotton growth recipe, create production baselines and run fiber tests with mills. The pilot, taking place on a 1.5-hectare farm, will test the firm’s approach in the Gujarat cotton growing region in India.
“Through this project we will be able to test our farming approach in India, working closely with farmers on the ground to design and implement real-time data tracking,” Edward Brial, CEO of Materra, said in a statement. “Working with these partners enables us to draw on a wealth of industry experience, looking to move beyond the pilot to full-scale implementation.”
Mattera’s design delivers agricultural inputs directly to the plant’s root system, where it can be efficiently absorbed without excess water loss, Fashion for Good said. The method also uses biological pest control, eliminating the environmental impact from pesticides. Finally, the farm is equipped with a network of smart sensors to track data in real-time.
The farm will grow extra-long staple cotton, a fiber that historically has not been grown in large volumes in Northern India as its cultivation requires specific climatic conditions that are only met in a limited number of regions. The cotton generated—Fashion for Good estimated it will total 3 tonnes (3.3 tons) by the completion of the project—will be divided among the three partners to produce garments that will be commercially available starting in 2023.
“Testing and adopting leading edge sustainable cotton innovations, such as Materra’s, is central to expanding our sustainable product offerings for our consumers,” Aksel Parmaksiz, senior vice president of sustainable business transformation at PVH’s Calvin Klein brand, said in a statement. “It’s also an enabler in fulfilling our enterprise-wide commitment to procure 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2025. We’re looking forward to featuring this cotton in future Calvin Klein products.”
Over the next three months, the project will focus on installing the pilot farm, with planting to begin in April and the first harvest taking place toward the end of the year. The pilot will include collating data and key learnings to identify the next best location to apply the technology, Fashion for Good said. The focus, it noted, will predominantly center on regions with limited water, few solutions for pest control and limited success at growing extra-long staple cotton.