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Data delivered – unlocking visibility of cotton’s impacts

As the apparel industry continues to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry’s sustainable future and impact remain a critical goal. In fact, separate from the global pandemic effects, the 2020s have been heralded as the decade for “real action,” with many brands and retailers committing to climate change targets in line with science. Setting such targets fundamentally depends on the ability to measure and monitor environmental impacts in a robust manner; a manner which secures the approval of the World Resources Institute, satisfies interrogation from critics and investors, and ultimately enables the right business decisions to be made at the right pace.

Across the industry, brands have diverse priorities in tackling their impacts, but one enabling theme is common – that of transparency. Environmental impacts must be visible and comparable in order for them to be addressed; thus, in apparel, transparency of the whole supply chain remains critical to understanding and tackling climate impacts.

“Transparency isn’t just for transparency’s sake. The information disclosed by companies needs to be accessible and detailed enough to take action upon. What each of us does with this public disclosure, how we use it to drive positive change, is what will count most. In this sense, we see transparency as the first crucial step towards systemic and structural change in the global fashion industry.” Fashion Transparency Index 2020, Fashion Revolution.

Brands invested in supply chain transparency report myriad benefits, not only in their ability to identify and address social and environmental concerns, but also in unlocking commercial efficiencies through consolidated materials sources, speed to market, strengthening partnerships upstream and strategizing for long-term security or diversity of supply.

Recognising the need for transparency and obtaining reliable data are quite different; the challenge for brands to access robust and representative data from producers at the opposite end of the chain can be an intimidating one. It is rare for brands to generate their own primary data in the supply chain, certainly at raw materials level - they simply don't have the reach and visibility, except perhaps for the few with fibre to garment verticality.

To bridge this data gap, brands look to the experts - assurance programs operating at producer level, directly collecting and verifying data that brands can trust and using those widely adopted metrics to inform their efforts to measure, set targets and monitor progress toward sustainability goals. Expertise on the ground serves to inform brands on a diverse range of measures including biodiversity and water management, and enabling them to be on the front foot with emerging trends in agricultural practise.

Here, U.S. cotton comes forward with a strong and timely contribution. For many years, U.S. FieldPrint® data has been used to support individual farmers’ ability to evaluate productivity, profitability and sustainability, and is leveraged at national level to inform progress towards US Cotton’s 2025 national sustainability goals.

Responding to calls from brands and retailers to marry farm-level data with their environmental reporting needs, the US offering is further enhanced with the introduction of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in 2020. The Trust Protocol reinforces the U.S. national sustainability goals and maps to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, encourages the adoption of best practise in cotton farming and provides a route for brands sourcing US cotton to access verified data in support of their sustainability goals.

'Companies with carbon commitments need to map out precisely where their materials come from presently and get data on energy used from their significant individual suppliers. This will work to provide an accurate benchmark and the granularity needed to begin shifting your business to the best energy performers in your supplier portfolio' - Linda Greer, Ecotextile news Feb/Mar 2020

Here is a nationalised cotton production program, in synergy with the wider apparel sector goals on climate change, which will be of great interest to forward-looking brands and retailers. The data speaks for itself – take a closer look at U.S. cotton and the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol for a progressive and scalable solution in sustainable cotton production.