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Bruce Atherley
Bruce Atherley
Executive Director of Cotton Council International

Helping address fashion’s environmental impact at the farm-level through verified sustainability data

Fashion is being tested as new transparency requirements go into effect, marking the start of a new wave of sustainability regulation.

On January 1, 2023, a French law went into effect that made it mandatory for brands and retailers to give consumers detailed information about the environmental characteristics of their products via a label detailing precise climate impact. Details such as mentioning the country where the fabric or garment was manufactured, what was used to colour the garment, and how far did it travel must now be provided to consumers.

In addition to information disclosure obligations, the law prohibits the use of the claim “biodegradable,” “environmentally friendly” or any other similar claim for new products.

This law could be seen as a preview of what’s to come in Europe and the U.S., as the mood around access to data is reflective of both developments in the regulatory landscape and the broader shift in consumer sentiment towards greater transparency.

Access to verified data leads to greater efficiencies, which is needed to help unravel fashion’s opaque supply chain. One of the ways brands and retailers are addressing data needs is through partnerships or membership in sustainability programs which can help drive visibility. As regulation expands and interest grows in regenerative agriculture practices, more brands are looking to receive information about their tier 3 suppliers.

One such sustainability program is the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which delivers quantifiable, verifiable goals and measurements to the key sustainability metrics of U.S. cotton production to its 1000+ members across the supply chain. It is the only system that provides measurable, verified data on land use, soil carbon, water management, soil loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy efficiency. It is also the world’s first sustainable cotton fiber program to offer article-level supply chain transparency to all its members.

U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol 
> Launched in 2020, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is built on a foundation of robust
data capture, aggregation, and reporting that drives continuous improvement across six key sustainability metrics
1. Water use
2. Energy efficiency
3. Greenhouse gas emissions
4. Soil conservation
5. Soil carbon
6. Land use
> It is the world’s first sustainable cotton fiber program to offer article-level supply chain
> These program elements make the Trust Protocol the first program to provide both
access to full supply chain transparency and science-based field-level, verified data.

Powered by Data
In November 2022, the Trust Protocol published its annual report that highlighted aggregate farm-level data received from 624 growers across 17 cotton-growing states on more than 1.1 million acres. Impressively, the program saw improvements across all six key sustainability metrics it measures.

These improvements have been fueled by agricultural innovations and technology. In 2021/22, 89% of Trust Protocol growers utilized precision agriculture technology including GPS receivers, multi-spectral images, and ground-based sensors. These technologies gather field-specific parameters including soil conditions, nutrients, and water availability. They assess the data to deploy site-specific crop management practices to maximize yields and minimize crop inputs. Real-time weather radar allows growers to avoid activities affected by storms, such as run-off from nutrient and herbicide applications. Yield maps show how areas within fields may need different management.

According to findings, the 2021/22 Trust Protocol aggregate data showed a 13% increase in yield and land use efficiency, a 14% increase in irrigated water efficiency, a 25% reduction in energy use, and a 21% reduction in GHG emissions.

Implementing regenerative practices positively influences the entire biosequestration and the storing of carbon, which directly helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it influences biodiversity, ecotoxicity, and the overall ecosystem. Soil health and soil carbon are high priorities for Trust Protocol grower members as healthy soils aid in retaining more water, carbon storage, and crop productivity. In 2021/22, Trust Protocol growers reported a 78% reduction in soil loss, while 70% of Trust Protocol growers reported a positive soil conditioning index.

By signing up for the Trust Protocol, brands and retailers gain access to U.S. cotton with sustainability credentials proven via Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, measured via the Fieldprint Calculator and verified with Control Union certifications. Members also experience full supply chain transparency through the Protocol Consumption Management Solution (PCMS), which harnesses blockchain technology to record and verify the movement of U.S. cotton fiber along the entire supply chain beginning at the gin.

3 Pillars of Trust Protocol 
The Trust Protocol was designed to set a new standard in sustainable cotton production where full transparency is a reality and continuous improvement to reduce environmental footprint is the central goal. Its three pillars are:
> Quantifiable, verifiable goals and measurement in key sustainability metrics for
brands and retailers.
> Article-level supply chain transparency for all members.
> Continuous improvement is central to U.S. cotton production.

What Lies Ahead for The Fashion Industry
Planned regulations in the EU include requirements to make products more durable reduce their environmental footprint and provide more transparency for consumers about items’ impact on the climate. The proposed New York Fashion Act combines due diligence and transparency requirements, which if passed, could impose penalties for brands and retailers up to 2% of their global revenue.

Making strategic partnerships and investing in data and transparency in anticipation of disclosure demands will help brands and retailers have greater visibility of what’s happening in their supply chains so that they will be better positioned to weather the changing regulatory landscape.

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