Sustainability of Cotton: A United Effort

Jul 30, 2019 8:00 AM ET
Article

Garry Bell, VP Corporate Marketing and Communications talks about the increasing collaboration among farmers, cotton associations, government and brands to continuously improve the footprint of growing cotton. 

Q: Do you feel that cotton is a more sustainable resource vs. synthetic fibers?

Unlike manmade fibers, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, cotton is a natural fiber and remains biodegradable at the end of the garment’s life.  The continuous improvements U.S. cotton farmers, often 3rd and 4th generation have made over the last 30 years have greatly reduced the footprint of their harvest.  The simple reality is that farmers are also business people and as such have implemented new practices and technologies that help them use less water, less chemicals and yield more fiber, ultimately making their farms more efficient and the fiber more sustainable.

Q:  How can you be sure that the cotton that you use is being sustainably grown and ethically harvested?

To begin with, we purchase cotton from the U.S., which is the most highly-regulated and monitored cotton crop globally.  The conditions under which the U.S. cotton crop is grown and harvested is regulated under very stringent rules and regulatory oversight governed by the USDA, USEPA and OSHA. The USDA rules for cotton are the same as other food crops because cotton seed oil and some other components are found in food products.

As a very large purchaser, we regularly visit farms and speak to farmers on an ongoing basis, and therefore have very good knowledge of the efforts the overall U.S. cotton industry has undertaken over the last 30 years to reduce their footprint. Today more than 65% of U.S. cotton is grown on land that requires no irrigation. Farmers are also leveraging technology big data and automation to dramatically improve their yields and reduce the impacts they have on the environment.

Q:  Why did you join the Cotton Leads project last year?

The program recognizes five very important principles that encompass many of the same core principles of our Genuine Responsibility™ programs.  Gildan’s CSR values align with these principles and we believe that the best solutions will stem from transparency, pursuit of continuous improvements and a willingness to develop more sustainable solutions across all aspects of the industry.

Q:  Are you involved with the Better Cotton initiative (BCI)?

Yes, we are members of BCI. Their program, while relatively new to the U.S. market, is widely adopted globally and encourages farmers to follow a science-based continuous improvement model which is consistent with our Genuine Responsibility ™ programs. BCI adheres to a Mass Balance methodology similar to carbon credits which reduce the complexity of tracing goods across complicated supply chains. In this system, we receive credits for each bale of BCI certified cotton we purchase and introduce those bales into our regular production stream. Selected and pre-approved customers can then ask for BCI credits which we issue based upon their consumption of cotton in their finished products.

Q: We have heard about the national Cotton Council’s US Sustainability Trust Protocol. What is it and how is Gildan involved? 

The US Trust Protocol is the outcome of a multi-stakeholder Sustainability Task Force created by the National Cotton Council. Gildan is a member of that task force and has been involved in the development of the Trust Protocol.  This is a program established to meet the U.S. cotton customer’s sustainability goals by ensuring that U.S. cotton is the most responsibly-produced crop in the world, striving to continuously improve the reduction of its environmental footprint. The Trust Protocol has established six very specific targets for its participating member farmers to achieve by 2025.

At Gildan, we are quite proud to support this effort and help promote it through our supply chain and to consumers globally, endorsing U.S. cotton’s reputation as the most trusted cotton source in the world.

Q: We hear that Cotton has a reputation of being a water-intensive crop? 

As seed technologies have increasingly incorporated drought-resistant traits into the seeds and conservation farming practices have improved, cotton’s water intensity has significantly decreased.

As mentioned, more than 65% of all U.S. grown cotton is harvested from farms where no supplemental irrigation is used, and the number is significantly higher in the regions from where Gildan purchases its cotton. In the specific regions where irrigation is required, like Arizona and California, drip irrigation systems and conservation tillage practices have greatly improved the water efficiency of the farms.

At Gildan, we have executed two full life-cycle assessments of the complete environmental impacts over the life of a cotton t-shirt.  It is interesting to note that the majority of water usage related to a cotton t-shirt (or all apparel for that matter) occurs in the consumer-use phase, over 35% of the water used over the life of the t-shirt comes from the maintenance of the garment by consumers.

Q:  What do you do with the waste by-products from the cotton plant?

The components of the cotton plant are almost all used in some other processes. The farmers compost the remaining plant materials back into the land to deliver nutrients back into the soil. At the cotton gin they pull out seeds for sale as cattle feed or to have cotton seed oil extracted. The leaves, bark, residual seeds and other organic materials are sold to farmers as feedstock, bedding or for compost. There are now researchers working on a modification of a variety of cotton seed that would allow it to become a protein source in food for humans.

Within our yarn-spinning facilities, we have developed waste management systems that ensure we recycle waste fiber into secondary products. We currently have developed an end-use for very short fibers, bark and cotton dust, pressing it into briquettes which we provide as free cattle feed to local farmers in the winter months.

Q:  Have you considered using recycled fibers in your yarn?  If so, which materials are you looking at?

We currently incorporate recycled PET into polyester fibers in a few products and are looking at ways to increase this into more products. The markets have not yet evolved fully so there remains a price premium for these products.

On the cotton front there are lots of promising technologies being developed that are looking at recycling and upcycling fabrics back into new products. Some of the more promising ones are looking to chemically degrade post-consumer textile waste into new fibers that can be incorporated into new yarns and products. These remain at an early stage but we are collaborating with some of them to see how they can fit into our products going forward.

We also do some mechanical recycling of our cutting room clippings and waste fibers and threads from our sewing operations.  Mechanical recycling involves cutting and breaking apart existing fabrics, which significantly shortens the fibers that are left, thereby limiting the quality of fabrics that can be made.