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Barbara Santamaria
Sep 18, 2020
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U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol’s Gary Adams on the challenges of measuring progress towards sustainability

Translated by
Barbara Santamaria
Sep 18, 2020

Mid-July saw the launch of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a new system for responsibly grown cotton that will provide annual data in line with the U.N. Sustainability Goals.

Led by a multi-stakeholder board of directors -- comprised of representatives from big brands such as Levi Strauss & Co and Tesco; NGOs like WWF and Environmental Defense Fund; and supply chain operators -- the protocol aims to be a valuable reference tool for the cotton industry.

In an interview with FashionNetwork.com, spokesperson and CEO Gary Adams - who has dedicated his career to supporting the cotton industry and has headed the National Cotton Council of America since 2015 - lays out the case for sourcing more responsibly grown cotton.

Gary Adams, CEO of U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol

FashionNetwork.com: What are the main objectives of this initiative?

Gary Adams: The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol’s goal is to set a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton. The Trust Protocol underpins and verifies U.S. cotton’s sustainability progress through quantifiable and verifiable goals. It uses sophisticated data collection and independent third-party verification to help brands and retailers improve their key sustainability metrics so they can demonstrate progress towards sustainability commitments and pledges.

FNW: What are the most important sustainability challenges for fashion retailers nowadays?

GA: Civil society is more vocal than ever when it comes to textiles, and trends like fast fashion have come in for a lot of scrutiny. A European Commissioner even called textiles the ‘new plastic’, underscoring the scale of the sustainability challenges facing retailers. That means that brands and retailers are under immense pressure to show measurable progress towards meeting their stated sustainability goals. Nowadays, it’s all about proof, not promises, or walking the talk, as we say over here. The key benefit to brands and retailers is that the U.S. Trust Cotton Protocol is entirely data driven and based on the real and measurable outcomes that will allow brands and retailers to demonstrably prove how they are meeting their sustainability commitments. 

FNW: And for the cotton growing industry?

GA: Cotton is a widely used raw material that consumes natural resources. So, of course, growing cotton more responsibly and environmentally means good husbandry and careful management of those resources. In the U.S., cotton growers have been working to improve efficiencies and their environmental footprint for decades. For instance, over the past 35 years in the United States, 18,000 cotton farms have collectively slashed water usage by 82% per bale; cut energy use by 38%; driven down greenhouse gas emissions by 30%; and reduced land use by 42% per bale. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol harnesses that fantastic progress of the past decades to build on it by setting formal and measurable targets for the future to help ensure that US cotton growers continue on their journey of growing ever-more environmentally-favourable cotton. 

FNW: How will the Covid-19 crisis change the priorities of society? Do you expect consumers to be more concerned about sustainability or will they go back to the fast fashion trend?

GA: That’s a great question, and something we wanted to understand too, which is why we recently commissioned research to help us understand the impact Covid-19 has had on existing sustainability initiatives and the future of sustainability efforts among brands, retailers and the supply chain. One of the key data points to emerge was that half (48%) of respondents said that their customers would switch to a competitor if their company did not meet their sustainability goals and commitments.
In terms of consumers being more concerned about sustainability, our research found that 42% of respondents felt that their customers were now more vocal about environmental sustainability concerns since Covid-19. 

It also found that 63% of respondents in Europe thought the Covid-19 pandemic has had a positive impact on their companies’ proactive and future sustainable investments and commitments, compared to just 24% who said the impact was negative.

FNW: Sustainability, certificates, protocols... There are many different concepts and terms that seem far from civil society. How could we educate consumers and, at the same time, avoid the greenwashing strategy from several companies?

GA: There are, and that is why one of our clear objectives in developing the U.S Cotton Trust Protocol has been to ensure that we are complementary to rather than competing with other cotton sustainability protocols. The U.S Cotton Trust Protocol is uniquely designed around the American cotton growing environment, which as the world’s leading economy, is very different from other cotton-growing countries. The U.S Cotton Trust Protocol gathers representatives from across the textiles value chain and is overseen by a multi-stakeholder Board of Directors including of representatives from brands and retailers, civil society and independent sustainability experts, to help ensure we keep our priorities close to the needs of the whole value chain and civil society as well. 

The U.S Trust Cotton Protocol is unique and holds its members responsible thanks to its innovative use of data. We collect information that is used by our members to help them improve their environmental commitments. The Trust Protocol also incorporates a programme of verification against Trust Protocol benchmarks, in the form of both second-party and independent third-party audits of grower performance, through Control Union Certifications (CUC). CUC has certified more than 150 industry standards programs worldwide, including working as a key partner in the early development and piloting phases of Field to Market’s Impact Claim Verification Protocol.

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