Cotton Options for Sustainable Sourcing

A Range of Cotton Programs for Products and Planet

Recently the National Cotton Council announced that the U.S. cotton industry has formalized goals to further reduce the environmental impact of cotton grown in the United States.  The announcement is another in a series of plans from cotton-minded organizations to improve the sustainability of cotton as a commodity crop and popular textile fiber. For professionals tasked with sourcing sustainable cotton, the task keeps getting easier.

The National Cotton Council is the central organization representing the seven segments of  the U.S. cotton industry. Recognizing that the continuation of environmental gains is certainly a benefit to all, the goals put forth by the NCC in its formal announcement are straightforward:

• A 13% reduction in the amount of land needed to produce a pound of cotton fiber;

• A 50% reduction in soil loss, balanced by new soil formation;

• An 18% increase in water use efficiency (more fiber per volume of water);

• A 39% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions;

• A 30% increase in soil carbon in fields; and

• A 15% reduction in energy used to produce seed cotton and ginned lint.

“Based on the momentum of environmental improvement already achieved by U.S. cotton growers, these goals are absolutely attainable,” says Dr. Jesse Daystar, the newly-appointed Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Cotton Incorporated.  Daystar points to the Field to Market® National Indicators Report (2016) − an independent assessment of environmental impacts across a range of U.S. agricultural commodities − which shows significant environmental gains for U.S. cotton over the past 30 years.

“The National Indicators Report and other studies, such as the Life Cycle Inventory and Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber and Fabric, helped guide the goal-setting for U.S. cotton and, in turn, the research areas for Cotton Incorporated,” explains Daystar. “The U.S. cotton infrastructure is robust and collaborative, and that will go far in developing the means to achieve these goals at a national level.”

There are myriad reasons to pick cotton as a textile ingredient, and a range of programs that can fit under the sustainable sourcing umbrella.”

— Dr. Jesse Daystar, Cotton Incorporated

The United States is one of the few cotton-growing countries that has a national-level oversight of farm practices overseen by such government agencies as the United States Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.  A portion of the sale of every bale of U.S.-grown conventional cotton is directed into a collective research and development program aimed at improving the quality and cost-efficiency of U.S. cotton production and processing.  

The Australian cotton industry operates under a similar system, which is why in 2013, cotton organizations from both countries formed the Cotton LEADS™ program.  The program is designed to educate downstream links of the cotton supply chain on the responsible growing practices and environmental gains within the two countries; and how the self-invenstment by growers contributes to those gains.

Daystar admits that not every cotton-producing country is blessed with this type of structure, but that other programs exist to help growers in other countries improve reduce their environmental footprint.  

“Cotton Incorporated is a longterm member of the Better Cotton Initiative, which is doing a great job of reaching out and educating growers around the world about better management practices,” says Daystar.  “There is also Cotton Made in Africa, e3, organic cotton, and numerous cotton-specific sustainability initiatives from individual brands and retailers.  In addition to U.S. and Australian cotton, all of these,” concludes Daystar, “offer options that should fit into any brand’s individual sustainabile sourcing guidelines. And the good news is that a company doesn’t have to pick just one.”

A Multitude of Cotton Programs

To Daystar’s point, there are numerous programs aimed at improving the environmental footprint of cotton, but why so much interest in cotton?  Daystar suggests longterm familiarity and versatility. “Cotton has been used as a textile fiber for over 6,000 years,” he explains. “Consumers not only prefer cotton, they perceive it to be natural, and sustainable compared to synthetic options.”  Responses to the 2016 Global Lifestyle Monitor survey indicate that 79% of consumers prefer their clothing to be cotton-rich; and nearly seven in 10 global consumers say cotton is most sustainable, compared to man-made fibers.

“Because cotton is such a versatile fiber, manufacturers like it, too,” continues Daystar.  “The number of these programs suggests that business want to continue offering cotton – sustainable cotton – to their customers and to consumers.”

Cotton’s Natural Advantages

CCotton, as a textile fiber option, has many advantages for a sustainable supply chain. It is a natural fiber and one preferred by consumers around the world. It is a versatile fiber that can be constructed into garments as rugged as bull denim and as delicate as lace.  It is a drought- and heat-tolerant crop that can thrive in regions that cannot grow other cash or food crops. Along with being drought-tolerant, it is estimated that half of the water needs of cotton around the world are met by rainfall, alone. From planting to harvest, the crop season for cotton is approximately 90 days.  Like other cellulosic fiber crops, such as flax for linen and hemp, the short growing season creates the opportunity to rotate in other seasonal crops when cotton is not being grown.  

Alternatives to such natural fibers include synthetics. Many of these are derived from petrochemical sources. Recent studies, such as “Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry” (Bren School of Environmental Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara) and “The Plastics Inside Us” (New York State University at Fredonia/University of Minnesota, School of Public Health) are raising awareness of the effects of synthetic textile microfibers on aquatic environments.  

Between natural fibers and synthetics lie bio-based cellulosic sources, which can begin as trees, which are then ground to pulp, altered in a chemical bath, and extruded as fiber to create rayon fabric. While many of these chemical conversion processes are said to be clean, they raise concerns over deforestation and water use.  A eucalyptus tree, for example, can consume as much as ten litres of water a day, every day, for its fifteen-year road to maturity, according to Dr. Chin Ong, a lead researcher at the World Forestry Institute (ICRAF) --- that’s nearly 55,000 litres of water for every tree.  

Cotton produces a crop every year and 50% of the global crop derives its water from rainfall, alone to meet its water needs. To put it in perspective, more water is required to grow an acre of lawn grass than to grow an acre of cotton; and 50% of the world’s cotton crop relies on rainwater, alone to meet its water needs.

“There are myriad reasons to pick cotton as a textile ingredient, and a range of programs that can fit under the sustainable sourcing umbrella,” says Daystar. “Their approaches and concentrations may vary, but all of them are working to reduce the environmental footprint of cotton.”

Who We Are

Cotton Incorporated is the research and marketing company for U.S. cotton growers and importers. Established in 1970 as a not-for-profit company, its mission is to increase the demand for and profitability of cotton. The company meets this straightforward mission by identifying efficiency and best practice opportunities along each link of the global cotton supply chain, and through global marketing efforts aimed at consumer and trade audiences.As a company dedicated to providing research and intelligence to the global cotton industry, Cotton Incorporated has offices in strategic textile centers around the world: Hong Kong, Mexico City, New York, Osaka and Shanghai, with the World Headquarters based in Cary, North Carolina. The Cary facility is a state-of-the-art research center that performs or oversees the development of innovations in agricultural practices, fiber processing and analyses, textile chemistry, spinning, weaving, and fabric engineering; and provides in-depth crop, market and consumer marketing analyses to stakeholders. The company also creates and disseminates seasonal surface and color trend directions, and is aggressively researching commercial product uses for the entire cotton plant.

To Learn More

Cotton Incorporated
6399 Weston Parkway
Cary, NC
(919) 678-2200