Farm to Fashion: When Cotton Gets Conscious, Tackling Transparency

·5 min read

“Conscious cotton” may no longer be an oxymoron, thanks to devotees in the textile industry committed to cleaning and greening the fiber — and now chemical company BASF is championing the cause.

Earlier this year, BASF launched its e3 Sustainable Cotton Grower Fund, an initiative that provides economic support for farmers in its e3 Sustainable Cotton program that have pledged to sustainably grow the fiber. Engendered by a need for field-level traceability, its farmer-focused fund offers aid to those already “tracking eight sustainability measures with 100 percent of their cotton acres, ranging from water use and pesticide management to soil conservation and greenhouse gas emissions reduction,” the company said.

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And interestingly, through a series of digital platforms, the cotton they grow can be traced from an individual cotton bale in their field, all the way to the end consumer, offering a two-fold sustainability solution for brands and consumers.

Its program provides brands, retailers, mills and other cotton fiber value chain partners that source e3 sustainable cotton an opportunity to contribute a monetary amount to the fund — and at the end of each year, 100 percent of those funds are distributed equally to e3 sustainable cotton farmers, according to the company. And all this is in addition to a $2.50 per bale premium the firm provides to farmers enrolled in its program.

Its mission has attracted the likes of Imogene + Willie, Rag & Bone, Wrangler and General Standard, proving the case and obvious demand for sustainably grown cotton on behalf of brands and consumers.

Here, Jennifer Gasque Crumpler, program manager at e3 Sustainable Cotton, talks to WWD about the e3 Sustainable Cotton program, its support for brands and farmers, and emerging consumer trends.

WWD: What was the genesis of the e3 Sustainable Cotton program?

Jennifer Gasque Crumpler: The e3 Sustainable Cotton program was born out of two needs we saw:

First, we had a lot of cotton farmers who were showing interest in how to incorporate more on-farm sustainability practices. We at BASF saw an opportunity to support farmers in this way. The e3 Sustainable Cotton program actually started in 2013, as a solution to this need.

Secondly, in more recent years, consumer demand for transparency has been on the rise. The “farm-to-table” movement we see in the food industry is showing up in textiles, too. Consumers have a greater interest in and understanding of how their clothing choices affect our world on a bigger level.

So, farmer interest in combination with this strong recent movement toward a desire for and use of sustainably grown, high-quality cotton in fashion and home goods allowed the e3 Sustainable cotton program to take off. BASF’s unique position in the supply chain enables brands to deliver on these demands with the only cotton sustainability program that is truly engrained at the farmer level, tracking environmental outcomes back to each farmer’s individual cotton field — and even to each bale of cotton.

WWD: What need does this initiative fill in the market?

J.G.C.: BASF has made a conscious effort to reach out and develop relationships throughout the cotton fiber value chain to create dialogue and enhance transparency. We’re seeing the benefits and needs met throughout the entire chain:

  • Consumers have access to goods they can love from a design/wearability standpoint, and they can feel good about it from a sustainability perspective.

  • Brands have an opportunity to differentiate their products and can help tell the cotton farmer’s story like those in the e3 Sustainable Cotton program who are dedicated to growing sustainable, traceable, high-quality cotton.

  • We’re seeing a revitalization of “Made in the USA” when it comes to our value chain partners. Take U.S.-based Vidalia Mills, a cotton mill in Louisiana that exclusively uses e3 Sustainable Cotton. The mill is working to revolutionize American fabric production by shortening its supply chain, reducing its manufacturing footprint and sourcing more sustainable cotton.

  • This program also is a differentiator for our cotton farmers who truly are pioneers dedicated to meeting the sustainability needs of everyday customers. It starts with access to cottonseed brands that are high in fiber quality. In joining the program, they are also provided logistical support and incentives for choosing to grow sustainable, traceable cotton. The Grower Fund is one example. Cotton fiber value chain collaborators can contribute a monetary amount to the fund. At the end of each year, 100 percent of those funds will be distributed equally to e3 Sustainable Cotton farmers. Vidalia Mills and General Standard are the first two companies to contribute to the fund, which launched in February.

WWD: What are some of the emerging trends in sustainable textiles you’ve noted in the past year? Are consumers shopping differently?

J.G.C.: In terms of trends, we’d say that sustainability and transparency are going hand in hand for today’s consumers. They want to know the “why” and “who” behind the products they buy. Online searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019, according to a study by McKinsey & Co. Related to this, consumers are investing more and more in quality over quantity, and the sustainability of the textiles they choose plays a big role in that.

We started seeing a demand shift for sustainable cotton ourselves at the end of 2018 and early 2019. We hosted a Farm to Fashion event in 2019, providing an opportunity for brands to see firsthand the e3 Sustainable Cotton story. The big turnout of that reinforced there’s significant interest in sustainably grown cotton.

COVID-19 has also amplified this interest, as people are spending more time researching and looking for more sustainable products. It’s also evidenced by the uptick in brand interest we’re seeing. Our work with brands like Imogene + Willie, Rag & Bone, Wrangler and General Standard enables us to deliver on consumers’ desire to know what their clothes and home goods are made of, how they are made, and where they started.


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