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HPJ: Cotton Incorporated Talks Sustainability Goals

High Plains Journal: Cotton Incorporated Talks Sustainability Goals

By Lacey Newlin

*This article was taken directly from the High Plains Journal - June 7, 2021 Edition.

Sustainability has been on the tip of every industry's tongue in recent years, particularly with the environment and greenhouse gas emissions becoming a focal point. Over the last decade the United States cotton industry, in particular, has been working towards a more aggressive stance on sustainability.

Jesse Daystar, Cotton Incorporated's chief sustainability officer and vice president of agriculture and environmental research, said Cotton Incorporated recently sent out a research survey to Generation Z consumers to better understand what they are concerned about in their world. Climate change, pollution and too much waste were three of the top concerns that really pertained to sustainability. 

"Clearly consumers - particularly the younger demographic - who are going to be buying more products in the future, want their products to be more sustainable and to have more information relating to sustainability," Daystar said. "Additionally, as a global context, nations and brands have aligned behind what we call a UN Sustainable Development Goals, which includes 17 goals that take a broad perspective on sustainability."

According to Daystar, this is initiative is not just about greenhouse gas emissions or environmental sustainability, but rather a broader perspective that includes addressing other topics such as hunger and poverty.

"Now we have a common language to speak about sustainability and a holistic approach to that as a well as an ability to track that through time," he explained. "This is a global effort that is required to really meet the needs of our future generations and to continue to do what we need to in order to provide for ourselves now."

Additionally, Daystar said many companies have made science-based targets and that creates greenhouse gas emission reduction goals aligned with a certain amount of gas emissions in the environment that will result in a 1.5 degree Celsius reduction in temperature.

"That is certainly some climate change, but not the most dramatic climate change, which will reduce the overall impacts to the world," he added. "Around 60 apparel brands have already made these science-based targets and are working towards reducing those as time goes by."

Even more aggressive than a science-based target with a 1.5-degree pathway, there are also brands that have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions down to a net-zero point.

"For example, Amazon has signed a climate pledge to be net-zero by 2040, but no matter how hard a brand or company tries, they can never reduce all their direct emissions to zero," Daystar said. "However, they can reduce everything in their control and perhaps offset or even capture carbon in the ground through agriculture, such as cotton production."

President Joe Biden has recently announced his plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and Daystar said the administration is certainly looking toward agriculture and forestry to play a critical role in capturing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"We certainly have a good track record of improving our environmental impacts through time," he explained. "For example over the last 35 years we've improved land use, soil loss, water, energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40%."

Although agriculture has been successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Daystar said it is crucial for growers to understand how sustainability is measured.

"We do that through the lens of life cycle assessment or measuring the environmental impacts over a product's entire life cycle in an environmental accounting way," he said. "It's a cradle-to-grave global scale perspective on cotton garments made from cotton. Some of the impacts include water, energy, inputs that go into production of the raw material, identifying where the environmental impacts occur and also how big those environmental impacts are."

So far, Cotton Incorporated has completed two lifecycle assessments, including assessments on cotton made in the U.S., China, India and Australia, where they looked at production at global scale to measure the inputs and outputs required to make a T-shirt, pants and a knit, collard shirt. The four impact categories include: global warming, energy, water quality and water consumption.

"Textile manufacturing and use and disposal are the primary drivers of global warming impacts for a shirt," Daystar said. "in the use and disposal, that really comes down to the washing and drying of garments, because that is very energy intensive. Water quality and consumption is more associated with cotton production. While cotton is a drought tolerant plant, it certainly is a plant that needs water to grow and that's why water consumption is a part of the overall impact."

However, cotton production actually pulls in carbon dioxide from the environment and creates a temporary negative emissions as CO2 is taken out of the air in photosynthesis and made into our clothing in the form of cellulose in the cotton fiber itself. On the flipside, the production of fertilizer is rather energy intensive and it also has emissions linked to water quality and greenhouse gas emissions in the form of nitrous oxide.

"We took that information and looked at the industry and what technology and science was coming online to better understand where we could go in the future," he said. "We came up with sustainability goals to improve soil carbon by 30%, improve land use efficiency by 13%, reduce soil loss by 50%, reduce energy by 15%, reduce water loss by 18% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39%. The lifecycle assessment helped inform us learn where we needed to make these changes and how we improve through time and also helped us create these sustainability goals."

Daystar said cotton supports the overall sustainability goals in terms of environmental, social and economic components and is a responsible and important part of the overall sustainability conversation.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or


*This article was taken directly from the High Plains Journal - June 7, 2021 Edition.