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Strong Fiber, Stronger Story: The Power of Cotton

POSTED UNDER Partnerships & Awards

Cotton is one of the best-known and most widely available natural fibers on the planet. It’s amazingly flexible, versatile, and it touches virtually every aspect of our lives. It’s grown all over the world, in more than 70 countries. And like all global products, it takes dedicated efforts to meet the challenge of supplying sustainable products. When it comes to cotton, one organization is doing exactly that.

United States-based Cotton Incorporated, a private not-for-profit group, has a two-part mission: working to build demand for cotton, and to improve the profitability of those who use cotton throughout the supply chain, including farmers, manufacturers and retailers. A major part of that effort focuses on research, including improving the sustainability of cotton.

Mark Messura, senior vice president, Global Supply Chain Marketing for Cotton Incorporated, shared some insights into the organization’s work in research: “It goes from the farm all the way to the point of sale. We have projects focusing on water efficiency, seed varieties and textile manufacturers, looking at ways to reduce the use of water, energy and chemicals. There are 30-plus projects focused just on water efficiency!”

Messura, who participated in Macy’s Go Green ERG Sustainability in Retail Panel in 2016, is particularly excited about the concept of precision agriculture – an idea that’s changing the way farmers manage their cotton crops. He describes the impact of a recent software innovation, saying, “It allows cotton farmers to map their fields and get visibility into precisely what plants need what care – instead of watering the entire field, you can water only the specific areas that need it. That precision means better environmental stewardship and better efficiency.”

Precision agriculture can help reduce nitrogen fertilizer usage as well, says Messura. “What if we could coat the seed with fertilizer, instead of spraying the entire field? It reduces the need for spraying and puts the fertilizer exactly where we need it. If we have that level of precision information, we can be very efficient in cotton production. It’s better for the environment, and it saves the farmers money, also.”

Messura compares the power of data available in precision agriculture to retail productivity: “Just as Macy’s knows the productivity of each square foot of each store – that’s the level of insight farmers can have about their individual farm fields.”

On the subject of Macy’s, Messura notes the company has taken a great interest in sustainability as it pertains to cotton. “We applaud Macy’s – they’ve really taken the initiative to dig in and learn more about the sustainability of cotton. They dig deeper. They’ve traveled with us to cotton farms, spoken to farmers, asked questions and learned about how it’s grown. They’ve focused on learning about and promoting the use of sustainable cotton.”

Of the 77 countries around the world that grow cotton, the United States and Australia have the most responsible, sustainable, and efficient cotton farming, according to Messura. The countries are part of the Cotton LEADS™ program, helping to inform retail and industry partners about responsible cotton production. “We’ve reached out to brands, retailers, manufacturers – if you agree with what we’re doing, we encourage you to join the program!” says Messura, who notes that Macy’s joined in 2016. Through the Cotton LEADS program, best practices and research from leading countries is shared with cotton producers worldwide.

Asked what the biggest takeaway about sustainable cotton is for Macy’s associates, Messura replies, “It’s confidence in the product, in its quality, knowing that it’s being grown and sourced responsibly. Cotton has a great story to tell – compare it to other fibers that are not renewable because they are oil-based, synthetic fibers, and you begin to see negative impact they can have on the environment. There’s a massive buildup of microfiber in our oceans and in fish, for example.”

Among the organization’s goals for 2017 are continuing to make advances in resource management, including water efficiency and fertilizer reduction. And Cotton Incorporated continues to expand its horizons, particularly in diversifying the use of cotton plants. “Not just the fiber,” says Messura, “but also the seed. We get 1.5 pounds of seed for every 1 pound of fiber, so being able to use the seed for oil or animal food is really important.” Cotton seed naturally contains a toxin called gossypol, making it inedible for humans. “But if we can remove that from the seed and place it in other parts of the plant, then cotton seeds could be a significant source of proteins for humans.”

“We’re looking for new ways to get more value out of the data,” says Messura. “What else can we learn? How can we be more efficient?” It’s a focus that’s at the heart of sustainability.


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