The U.S. boasts the world’s most sophisticated cotton sector, and both its domestic value and role in global supply chains cannot be understated. In 2019, growers generated nearly 20 million bales of cotton, worth some $7 billion in value. The industry as a whole employs more than 18,000 people. It benefits from a rare combination of direct access to the latest technologies and research, some of the world’s most knowledgeable farmers, and productive soil. But remaining at the cutting edge requires bold thinking about how this valuable commodity is sustainably produced, marketed and transported.
Those in agtech sit at the center of constantly evolving discussions on advancing the production and profit goals of farmers, bringing specialty products to market, and mitigating supply chain barriers. The overarching objective is to realize this while being good stewards of the world’s most precious natural resources, and responding effectively to consumer expectations of more sustainable, traceable products.
Building and delivering the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a farm-level sustainability initiative that uses sophisticated data collection to document best management practices, has made clear that without partnerships and collaboration between all players in the sector, none of this would be possible.
Farmers, producers and suppliers working together so closely with the help of technology has helped realize three key achievements.
First, partnerships like this encourage traceability in the sourcing of natural materials, ultimately benefitting consumers who want to know more about the products they buy. While it isn’t currently possible to isolate every cotton fiber, and trace each fiber back to the farm level, new technologies such as blockchain delivers the next best solution, compiling and verifying transactions at every level as a product travels through the supply chain. From point A to point B to point C, participants can identify the sources, farming practices and environmental credentials of each contributor to a product. For our part, we are incredibly fortunate to work with industry leaders and progressive ag-tech organizations to deliver end-to-end traceability, accessible from any device in textile-producing regions around the world.
Second, working together supports proven credentials for all players in U.S. cotton, as accessible to the value chain as to the general public. This is a particular benefit for brands and retailers. A Brandingmag study in 2020 suggested up to 64% of consumers fit the profile of having a willingness to spend more on sustainable items. Conscious consumers will reward businesses whose efforts to create ecologically friendly products are tangible and easy to see. In practice, collaboration between supply chain participants results in the most accurate information possible concerning labor practices, water and energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Claims about products and practices are readily verifiable and able to be communicated to customers.
Third, working together bolsters mutual accountability, pushing all participants to higher standards. The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol’s goals are ambitious, including a desired 13% reduction in land use, an 18% decrease in water usage, a 30% soil carbon increase and a 79% cut in greenhouse gas emissions. And the challenge they pose are heightened by the reality that most of the world’s arable land is already under cultivation, meaning growers must do more on farmlands that already exist. But a substantial benefit of collaboration is the ability to digitally observe what each player is doing to drive more sustainable cotton production, offering suggestions, assistance and valuable insight where needed. Growers who wish to participate in the Trust Protocol, for example, must commit to specific continuous improvement measures first identified in their customized field assessment, ensuring that their farming operations and key sustainability indicators evolve further toward shared objectives.
The changes that are needed to make U.S. cotton primed for the next generation will not be possible without partnership-based approaches. We tend to think of ourselves as being like runners in a race, where the continued endurance of those beside us encourages and enables us to keep reaching for the finish. Believing in ourselves and counting on each other are one and the same in driving greater sustainability.
Mark Pryor is the Chairman and CEO of Memphis-based The Seam, a leading provider of food and agribusiness software and trading solutions. He serves as Secretary of the Board at Agricenter International, was also named to the inaugural Board of Directors of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol in December 2019 as an advisor, and serves on the Technology Advisory Committee of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.