Exploring Cotton’s Role in a Sustainable Future

“We have to look at solutions that we can achieve in the time we have to achieve them,” said Dr. Jesse Daystar, chief sustainability officer and vice president, sustainability, Cotton Incorporated.

In a moment when too many players in the industry are setting unattainable sustainability goals, the planet’s dire climate status should force companies to replace lofty ambitions with realistic actions.

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The panel “Rerouting for a More Sustainable Future in Time” at Sourcing Journal’s April 25 Sustainability Summit: The Road to 2030 explored the resilient role cotton can play in this context.

As it celebrates the 50th year of its famed Seal of Cotton trademark, Cotton Incorporated’s video touted the company’s commitments to reduce U.S. cotton production greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 39 percent by 2025, while acknowledging that just reducing cotton production impact at the field level will not achieve shared climate goals. Even bringing field level cotton production to zero GHG emissions would only reduce overall garment impact by approximately 10 to 20 percent.

In order to assess overall impact, Daystar said, the industry must look beyond just cotton production and also consider things like energy choices and dyeing processes.

“Cotton impacts alone won’t get us to our goals,” he said. “Cotton represents just 13 percent of the impact of a T-shirt, so even if you cut that in half, it’s still only 7 percent. What can we do to pull down carbon emissions even further?”

According to Cotton Incorporated’s LCA, replacing fossil fuel energy in the apparel manufacturing process with renewable energy technology could reduce a garment’s impact by 30 to 50 percent, and indeed, many brands have made commitments to sourcing renewable energy, or getting purchasing agreements with renewable energy sources.

However, without solid supplier partnerships, visibility into energy usage or dyeing and finishing processes is trickier. “It’s really hard when you have supply chains all across the world and you might not have long-term relationships,” said Daystar, citing the Sustainable Apparel Coalition as helpful for quantifying environmental impacts of products.

Cotton’s contribution to a garment’s overall impact might be relatively minor, but Cotton Incorporated is still looking at ways to bring the number down. Going “one layer down” brings you face to face with cotton’s growing process, and that means fertilizers. Cotton is a plant that needs food, and about 60 percent of the climate change impacts occur as a result of using nitrogen and other fertilizers, he said.

In 2020, Cotton Incorporated created the sustainability initiative known as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and today partners with the U.S. Climate Smart Cotton Program—a five-year, collaborative pilot to provide technical and financial assistance to 1,650 U.S. cotton farmers. By sharing the risk, and getting $90 million investment, Cotton Incorporated is helping growers get to programs and implement new practices.

“It’s a risky situation when a grower has to put in hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy seed and plant and maybe not see a return on their investment, [yet] realizing this is what probably needs to happen to pull down these greenhouse gas emissions,” Daystar said. “It’s going to take some time for that to become economically viable in many situations.”

Regarding circularity, Cotton Incorporated is working with composting facilities to take pre-consumer and post-consumer cotton waste garments and turn that back into soil. “This could go on our farms, which would capture carbon in the ground,” said Daystar. “This is very beneficial to reduce the waste issue, and also help with that nutrient issue and reduce the fertilizer needs of the plant.”

Bioenergy is another area ripe for exploration. After a cotton garment is used, recycled and re-used according to its durability, why not burn it for energy? “Right now we’re cutting down trees to create bio energy, why are we not using our old clothing for bio energy?”

Finally, reducing carbon is key. As Cotton Incorporated looks to the Climate Smart Cotton Program, it’s going to be reducing impacts on the field, as well as pulling carbon into the ground. “A ‘carbon inset’ is sort of like a ‘carbon offset,’ but the inset is a benefit or verified outcome that is going to be sold to somebody in the value chain or somebody sourcing from that area, in this case, the United States,” Daystar said.

Technology is a solution for many of these challenges, and in fact, technology over the past 40 years has improved water use efficiency by roughly 81 percent, made possible by innovation technologies such as waterless and foam dyeing, plus high-efficiency/low-energy irrigation systems.

“The tipping point is here,” said Daystar. “Now, it’s [more] ‘Can we just make the impact, less bad?’”

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