Cotton has come a long way on its sustainability journey, evolving from a formerly vilified fiber to a beacon of continuous improvement as it gradually meets higher standards to be more sustainably grown, with the help of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.
Brands backing up its mission include the J. Crew Group, whose investment in cotton transparency is crucial, as more than 70 percent of its material footprint across J. Crew and Madewell is cotton flush.
At Fairchild Media Group’s Sustainability Forum, Gary Adams, president of the National Cotton Council of America, and Liz Hershfield, senior vice president, head of sustainability, J. Crew Group, discussed the state of sustainable cotton, data transparency and why brands should move forward on a collaborative path for the greater good of the industry.
In the panel “The Value of Data and Transparency in Cotton Supply Chains,” Adams shared his view of transparency for sustainably grown cotton.
Created to meet a growing demand for cotton transparency, the Trust Protocol’s mission is to “bring new data to the sustainability discussion, and also bring transparency,” he said. Since its launch in October 2020, the Trust Protocol saw immediate success within its first year of operation: 1.5 million bales of U.S. cotton had been entered into its system, and 450 mills, manufacturers, brands and retailers joined its program. To date, that number has reached more than 600.
Adams explained that for the organization, transparency is thought of from two perspectives: First, from the growers enrolled in the program, as the Trust Protocol collects data regarding farm management practices, farming practices, input usage on a portion of their fields, etc., which is then provided to their brand and retailer members.
Second, transparency within that textile supply chain. “We’re putting together a system that will bring that ‘article level’ transparency, so that brands and retailers have greater knowledge about their supply chain and who the companies are in that supply chain at each stage of the process,” Adams said.
The Trust Protocol is able to offer “article-level” transparency through its Protocol Consumption Management Solution (PCMS), which begins when the grower member’s cotton is ginned and each unique Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) number is attached. The PBI information related to the shipments of U.S. cotton fiber are captured and verified against the USDA database. As the Trust Protocol Cotton fiber flows through each step of the supply chain, the PCMS will create a transparency map that provides the authenticated origin of the U.S. cotton, along with the names and locations of the Trust Protocol members that were involved in all parts of the production process, into the finished products that are shipped to the brand and retailer.
Through its partnership with TextileGenesis, it tracks the movement of Trust Protocol cotton through each stage of the supply chain, and every transaction is verified and documented until a finished good arrives at a brand or retailer, enabling “article-level” data transparency.
Hershfield agreed that transparency “isn’t any longer just where your product is coming from, or where the cotton is coming from. It’s how is it being manufactured, who’s manufacturing it, what protocols they’re using, and the impact,” she said.
“It’s really just getting very deep in every single aspect of how product is coming to life. When we think about cotton and all the great work that the Trust Protocol is doing, it starts at the farm. And that’s how we’re viewing it. We have to know everything about who, what, where and how,” she added.
Asked about how demand for supply chain transparency has changed in recent years, Adams said the evolution has been quite dramatic, particularly with regard to the standards brands and retailers are being held to, such as knowing exactly who is in their supply chain and where their products originate from.
“We’ve seen this now with the increased importance of [transparency] and scrutiny that’s happening within government regulations in the U.S., and import restrictions on certain products coming from China, and we know that has increased the importance of transparency,” Adams said.
For the Trust Protocol, its unified approach to sustainability and transparency takes form in the aforementioned continuous improvement. “The primary focus is on the environmental metrics and data we collect there, but as the program develops and grows, transparency has become as equally as important as the environmental data,” Adams explained.
The J. Crew Group holds a similar perspective. Hershfield said the company was drawn to the Trust Protocol in part due to its focus on cotton.
“We’ve been on a transparency journey for multiple years, but we’ve also been on a sustainability journey. And I think the perfect combination of really focusing on sustainable farming practices, which is huge for us, because so much of our product is cotton-based, and then coupled with the fact that it’s traceable and transparent made the collaboration a no-brainer,” she said, adding that J. Crew Group was one of the first brands to pilot its program.
J. Crew Group’s fiber sourcing goals for 2025 are ambitious. “We see cotton as our primary focus in terms of our fiber goals,” Hershfield said, but emphasized that the group uses several other fibers and aims to have 100 percent of its fibers to be sustainably sourced by 2025.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the Trust Protocol is that it gets the word out about sustainable cotton, Hershfield said, adding that sustainability should no longer be viewed by brands as a way to sharpen their competitive edge.
“The more we operate as a collective, the bigger impact we’re going to have,” she said.
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