Conscious of the global impact of their product, the cotton industry is taking strides to clean up its supply chain. From the farm to the shelf, the popularity of cotton means that textile companies and retailers have the potential to create an oversized environmental footprint. Fortunately, producers and brands are taking steps in the right direction by committing to the production of sustainably sourced cotton.
Sustainable sourcing refers to how a cotton crop is grown and harvested. The practice of sustainable sourcing takes into account environmental, social, economic, and ethical factors to create a responsible product from seed to sale.
This year, U.S. cotton producers and industry organizations, such as The National Cotton Council of America, Cotton Inc., and Cotton USA, set new environmental goals in order to promote sustainable practice and responsible cotton production. Over the next ten years, the goals for the industry in the United States are:
- Increase soil production by 30%
- Increase land efficiency by 13%
- Decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 39%
- Decrease soil loss per acre by 50%
- Decrease water use by 18%
- Decrease energy use by 15%
In addition to this set of U.S. specific goals, a new online guide was launched by The Cotton 2040 initiative to help global brands and retailers “radically increase” their sourcing of sustainable cotton. According to Forum for the Future, the British nonprofit that assembled Cotton 2040, cotton accounts for 30 percent of all fibers used by the textiles industry, yet only 3% of all cotton produced globally is currently sourced as more sustainable cotton. Dozens of brands have signed up to support efforts to increase this number. H&M, Nike, Adidas, and Burberry are among these brands who have pledged to commit to only sourcing and using 100% sustainable cotton in their products by 2025.
There are many family farmers, like the men and women we partner with at HomeGrown Cotton, who are dedicated to planting and harvesting cotton sustainably. With this collective effort, farmers, brands, and retailers are working to improve the environmental and societal impact of cotton production
around the world.
Here are five ways to tell if cotton farms are growing and harvesting their crops in a sustainable manner:
Practices Water Conservation
Even though cotton is a drought-tolerant crop, some cotton farmers have historically used irrigation techniques to increase the productivity of their cotton production. To keep up with these high levels of production each season, cotton farms use substantial water to grow and harvest their crops. According to WWF, 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilogram of cotton, or the equivalent to a single t-shirt or pair of jeans.
Cotton farms are increasing water-use efficiency by producing more cotton with less water. This is possible thanks for new tools and technology such as the implementation of better water delivery systems including drip irrigation and laser leveling. Cotton farmers also have improved irrigation scheduling with the help of computer programs and crop and soil sensors. With this technology, they have improved insight into which areas of their cotton farms need more or less water during growing season. Cotton farmers that use sensor-based irrigation achieved 100 pounds higher yield per acre without increased water use compared to producers not using sensors.
Produces Fewer Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Like all manufacturing and agricultural industries, cotton production contributes to the creation of greenhouse gas emissions due to the use of synthetic nitrogen (N). A small amount of nitrogen is released into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O) during fertilizer application, a vital step in cotton production According to the EPA, agriculture soil management activities, like fertilizer application, are the largest source of N2O emissions in the U.S. These activities accounted for about 77 percent of total U.S. N2O emissions in 2016.
To reduce the amount of nitrogen required to produce cotton, farmers are relying on cutting-edge technology to increase nitrogen use efficiency. These technological innovations include transportable sensors that allow cotton farmers to accurately measure individual cotton plant’s needs for fertilizer, which helps reduce unnecessary application.
Increases Soil Preservation with “No-tillage” Farming Practices
Soil erosion is one of the greatest risks to cotton farms and the environment. In order to preserve soil, reduce water usage, and prevent weed growth, many farmers in the United States have adopted “no-tillage” farming practices. A no-tillage approach refrains from digging, stirring, or overturning soil in order to prepare it for growing season. Instead, farmers use a no-till planter to create a narrow trench that is large enough to receive the cotton seeds. With this method, cover crop remains on the surface to protect the soil from crusting and moisture loss. This practice also boosts organic matter retention, which makes the soil more resilient.
Does Not Use Forced Labor for Planting or Harvesting
When it comes to cotton, sustainable sourcing is about more than just the environment. It also applies to the people involved in the processing and production of this worldwide crop. The cotton industry is a complex one and unfortunately, has been marred by human rights violations in certain regions. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, governments forcibly mobilize citizens to leave their jobs and work in cotton fields to keep up with the demands of harvest season. Despite international and national efforts to protect Uzbek and Turkmen citizens from forced labor, the governments of these two countries continue to oppress thousands of workers to harvest cotton every year.
With the technology we use at HomeGrown Cotton, we’re able to verify that our cotton is pure throughout the supply chain and is never mixed with other cottons, including cotton grown in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Provides Transparency Into Supply Chain
Any company can claim that they have a sustainable supply chain, but it’s important to only trust those that are transparent and provide their consumers an inside look into their process. So how can companies track exactly where their cotton comes from? Through the use of technology like we use at HomeGrown Cotton. With our breakthrough DNA tracking technology, companies can track fiber at a molecular level from our family farms to their consumers, protect their products from mixing with foreign and lower quality fibers, and allows companies to back up their sustainability claims with our scientific verification process.
Here at HomeGrown, we understand the importance of the land our farmers work to produce the highest-quality cotton. It’s why we use every sustainability measure possible to reduce our environmental impact, from computer-controlled moisture sensors for water conservation to “no-tillage” farming practices for soil preservation. Together with a commitment to fair labor practices, we’re helping America the Beautiful stay that way.