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Supporting the Fashion Industry’s Renewed Focus on Sustainability

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With the conclusion of Paris Fashion Week, the annual fall runway season has come to a close. After a turbulent 2020, a big takeaway from the many global shows this past month was the fashion industry’s renewed focus on sustainability and its desire to have the needed metrics against which to measure its efforts.

London, New York, Copenhagen and Paris Fashion Weeks were all presented virtually this year to reduce the spread of Covid-19. But the trimmed carbon footprint—tied to the elimination of travel and staging live shows—has been a secondary, potentially unequivocal benefit that ties into the events’ larger plans to decrease their environmental impact. Copenhagen Fashion Week set forth its sustainability action plan for 2020-22, which outlined targets that brands must reach, including fashion sustainability standard certification for 50 percent of their materials, of which a certain percentage must be biodegradable. These standards need to be met before brands can attend the events in Denmark in 2023 and beyond.

But designers had already been making changes toward sustainability in their work. As Emily Farra of Vogue recently wrote, “The Spring 2021 collections, designed in quarantine and arriving in stores now, marked a particular turning point. In our conversations with designers, it was the first time that sustainable practices simply felt like a given, not an exception to the rule (or, worse, a marketing stunt).”

There has never been a greater expectation for sustainability and transparency, as designers, brands and retailers around the globe are being held accountable for every step of their supply chain—from ensuring responsible labor and sustainable growing practices to delivering a circular lifecycle. While U.S. cotton is widely recognized for its quality, the industry never had the data to support its sustainability credentials—until now.

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol launched in 2020 to set a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton. It brings quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurements to sustainable cotton production and drives continuous improvement in six key sustainability metrics: land use efficiency, soil loss, water use, energy use, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and soil carbon.

“It’s critical for us to be a leader in sustainable cotton,” Alice Hartley, Gap Inc.

The Trust Protocol is a complement to existing sustainability programs, and its science-based targets are aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, by 2025, the system aims to reduce U.S. cotton growers’ GHG emissions by 39 percent and their water use by 18 percent.

As a result of these ambitious commitments, the Trust Protocol has been selected for Cotton 2040’s CottonUp guide and Textile Exchange’s list of preferred materials.

The Trust Protocol underpins and verifies U.S. cotton’s sustainability practices through sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification. It empowers U.S. growers to demonstrate sustainable stewardship, which helps brands and retailers better tell their own sustainability stories.

Recently Gap Inc.—along with its collection of purpose-led lifestyle brands Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic and Athleta—and U.K. retailer Next became members of the Trust Protocol. Gap Inc. has a target of sourcing 100 percent of its cotton from more sustainable sources by 2025, and Next has a goal to source 100 percent of its main raw materials through known, responsible or certified routes by 2025. Both companies joined the Trust Protocol to aid the efforts of their broader sustainability initiatives.

“Across Gap Inc., cotton is our number one fiber, representing more than 60 percent of our total fiber volume, so it’s critical for us to be a leader in sustainable cotton,” said Alice Hartley, director of product sustainability for Gap Inc. “By signing onto the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, we can receive aggregated year-on-year field data on areas including water use, greenhouse gas emissions and soil health to better understand our primary material.”

Members of the program will receive verified year-over-year aggregate farm-level data on the six key sustainability metrics. This, in turn, will help show that the cotton fiber element of their supply chain is more sustainable and lessens environmental and social risk.

It is central to the Trust Protocol’s purpose to give its members the ability to source confidently by providing critical assurances about the origins of their cotton. It’s one of the only cotton initiatives that has agreed to measurable, third-party verified sustainability targets, which means more responsible production and consumption. It lets brands, business and consumers trust in the cotton they buy, sell and wear for today and tomorrow.

“Apparel brands typically have good visibility into their immediate suppliers but lose visibility the further back you go in the supply chain,” said Hartley. “We are working to improve visibility, for example, by mapping our suppliers and through partnerships such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol to provide greater transparency from the farm to manufacturing.”

The 2021 fall fashion week season has shown real sustainability progress, but there’s still much room to grow. That growth will begin with the materials that brands and retailers source to become the products consumers ultimately purchase. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol can be the solution towards not just a more sustainable runway, but a more sustainable fashion industry.

Click here to learn more about the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.

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