Cotton sustainability is moving beyond the fields

Cotton sustainability is moving through the entire supply chain, shifting to put more focus on the manufacturing process and chemistry.

At a Glance

  • Manufacturers are under pressure to improve sustainability and reduce textile waste, which is a problem globally.

The goal of sustainability in cotton is moving beyond the field to the entire supply chain. The focus is shifting to put more focus on the manufacturing process and chemistry. 

“Verification through the U.S. Cotton Trust protocol will be an important component for U.S. cotton. The days of not having to do anything are probably over. We’re going to see continued trends from brands and retailers asking our industry for more verification,” says Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated

In his final address to the annual meeting of Southern Cotton Growers and Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association Jan. 25 at the Westin Resort in Hilton Head Island, S.C., Worsham said manufacturers and sellers of textile products will have to demonstrate and verify their products’ sustainability.  

“Put that in quotes because there is not a clean definition on what is sustainable and what is not. The days of just tossing things into the landfill are coming to an end — there are going to be penalties if you don’t have a plan,” Worsham said. 

Worsham will retire as CEO of Cotton Incorporated in December, and William Kimbrell, Cotton Incorporated’s COO and executive vice president, will take over as CEO in January. Kimbrell joined Worsham at the Southern-Southeastern meeting, and in his first ever address to the group, stressed that sustainability has been on the minds of cotton farmers over his 20 years with the company.   

The evolution of sustainability 

“When I first started at Cotton Incorporated, sustainability wasn’t even a really a word. It was something that we already did. U.S. cotton growers were already looking for ways to do things more efficiently and grow cotton in a more responsible way, not only because it was good for the environment, but also looking for ways for us to be more profitable,” Kimbrell said. 

Circularity, the newest buzzword around sustainability, is viewed as the process of achieving sustainability with the goal of reducing waste as much as possible along the supply chain. Both Worsham and Kimbrell stressed that circularity is becoming more important throughout the entire textile industry. 

Worsham said manufacturers are under pressure to improve sustainability through circularity and to reduce textile waste, which is a big problem globally. Kimbrell added that brands and retailers are under more pressure now to set ESG (Environmental, social and governance) targets.  

Kimbrell said brands and retailers are looking to meet these ESG goals by looking at recycling and ways to decrease their environmental footprint in manufacturing. He said Cotton Incorporated is under a lot of pressure from brands and retailers to help them meet some of their sustainability and ESG goals in their making of cotton products, beyond sustainability on the farm. 

“Twelve years ago, when we first started talking about sustainability at Cotton Incorporated, we were really talking about activities in the field. We were looking at our field footprint, ways that we could reduce soil erosion, water, energy use, greenhouse gases. We were trying to shrink the footprint of what we were doing in the field and were very much focused on this initiative at the fiber level. But we really over the years have seen sustainability evolve significantly, looking at things like the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol program,” he said.