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U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol Enters Stage Two: Brands and Retailers Can Join In

Coming out of its year-long pilot phase, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is ready to take on new members.

Brands and retailers are now welcome to join the Trust Protocol, a new system for responsibly grown cotton that will provide annual data for six areas of sustainability in line with the United Nations Sustainability Goals.

This year-over-year data, available for the first time, will allow brands and retailers to better measure progress towards meeting sustainability commitments. Dr. Gary Adams, president of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, told Sourcing Journal that during the first stage since the launch last year, the organization’s main focus was on getting cotton producers enrolled in the program, and looking at the data that was collected from them to determine how the protocol could make the process less burdensome.

“As we’ve gone through it…we’ve tried to adjust it to make sure we catch regional differences and differences in cotton-production practices,” Adams said. “As we’ve garnered feedback from the various parts of the supply chain, we’ve gotten a greater appreciation of the quantifiable metrics.”

The Trust Protocol underpins and verifies sustainability progress through sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification. By working with Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and Control Union Certifications North America, the Trust Protocol allows brands and retailers to better track the cotton entering their supply chain.

Brands that become members of the Trust Protocol will have access to aggregate year-over-year data on water use, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, soil carbon and land-use efficiency.

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“Hopefully the Trust Protocol is going to offer brands and retailers a new option, a new program as they look at trying to meet their corporate sustainability goals, give them access to new data and information, and expand their sourcing options by looking more at U.S. cotton,” Adams said. “We realized that the textile supply chain and the questions that are being asked by the brands and retailers are only increasing. [The U.S. cotton industry] understands that we have access to those supply chains and markets, and to do that we need to be able to tell our sustainability story.”

Adams said a key short-term goal is to enroll as many producers as possible in the program, more than doubling the first-year signups to the range of 500 to 700, and then accommodate as many as 1 million bales of cotton, if weather and other factors cooperate, in the next year. The long-term goal is to expand the awareness of the program throughout the supply chain.

The Trust Protocol is a complement to existing sustainability programs and is designed from the ground up to fit the specialized cotton mass-growing environment of the U.S. Last month, the Trust Protocol was added to Textile Exchange’s list of 36 preferred fibers and materials from which  more than 170 participating brands and retailers can select as part of Textile Exchange’s Material Change Index program.

Over the past 35 years, U.S. cotton has made significant improvements in growing cotton responsibly, Adams noted. To continue the progress, the Trust Protocol has ambitious national goals for 2025. By this date, the Trust Protocol aims to have more than half of all U.S. cotton production included in the program.

“Achieving a transition towards agricultural sustainability requires broad public and private partnerships, and a vital part of my work at The Nature Conservancy includes looking at ways to collaborate with key agricultural stakeholders,” said Dr. Kris Johnson, deputy director of Agriculture at the Nature Conservancy, North American Region, and a U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol Board Member. “Informed by science-based targets, the Trust Protocol provides evidence of and encourages continuous improvements in U.S. cotton production.”

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is overseen by a multi-stakeholder board of directors comprised of representatives from brands and retailers, civil society and independent sustainability experts, as well as the cotton-growing industry, including growers, ginners, merchants, wholesalers and cooperatives, mills and cottonseed handlers.

Adams said the timing of the next stage is both tenuous and vital, coming in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

“We do realize what has happened in 2020, and it does create even more challenges in trying to introduce a new program,” Adams said. “Doing it at a time, too, that has all the economic challenges all the way up and down the supply chain…does create new challenges. But there’s nothing we can do about that other than continue to work and push forward.”

“I do think, though, that those market disruptions are there…and it’s had some very serious economic consequences,” he added. “But as we look forward, the focus on sustainability, the focus on being efficient with resources as we can be and the importance of shrinking that environmental footprint, I don’t see that going away. If anything, it intensifies.”