To provide a creative forum for cotton sourcing executives to discuss sustainability throughout the supply chain, the Cotton Board and Cotton Incorporated recently hosted the Cotton Sustainability Summit at Yosemite National Park.

The event included panel discussions about cotton and the environment as well as a farm tour to the local Terranova Ranch managed by Don Cameron, which produces both conventional and organic cotton.

“Through intimate panel discussions, our goal was to provide an invaluable opportunity for brands and retailers to have directed, but candid conversations about what sustainability means to their organizations, while also providing key facts about cotton and the environment,” says the Cotton Board's vice president, importer relations, Elizabeth King.

“Conventional cotton has been misrepresented on many occasions with myths about its production practices. This was an ideal way to convey cotton's true environmental story.”

In the summit's kickoff panel discussion, Alabama cotton producer Larkin Martin said “one of the biggest myths about cotton farming is that we are all huge corporate farms. Yet, in reality, most of us are family operations and have been farming the same land for generations.

“I work on my farm, and I live on my farm — and I intend to keep it safe and operable for the future, as do other farmers.”

Another myth that Martin identified is the claim that U.S. cotton is an irresponsible user of water and chemicals.

“Cotton's water usage is very little compared to other crops such as rice and alfalfa,” she noted. “We're also heavily involved in using genetically enhanced seed and precision farming technology to reduce our chemical inputs — and that's a standard for the majority of U.S. cotton farms.”

Don Cameron, a 6,254-acre California producer who grows both conventional and organic cotton, spoke about his own sustainability practices.

“We've been actively seeking new ways to be better stewards of the environment for many years — both in our conventional and organic production methods,” he said.

“The challenges we face with organic farming, however, are lower and more variable yields, an increase of water usage, the lack of available labor for hand weeding and the increased costs involved therein,” he said.

“We're continually working to find more alternatives to these issues, but the cotton industry as a whole has come a long way and can proudly hold its head up high.”

Other speakers included executives from some of the leading retailers, including Nike, Wal-Mart, and Marks and Spencer, who shared some of their company's sustainability strategies.

“I believe in terms of a customer product, cotton has a fantastic future,” said the U.K.-based Marks and Spencer's Sustainable Textiles and Cotton Specialist, Graham Burden, as he discussed his company's “Plan A” initiative which engages their customers and suppliers in a 100-point “eco-plan” out to the year 2012.

He also noted that about 55 percent of their apparel products in their 300 stores are made with cotton, which is made up of a balance of both conventionally-grown and organic cotton.

Well-known authors Andrew Winston, “Green to Gold,” and Dr. Brian Nattrass, “Dancing with the Tiger,” who have documented the “green” movement of several innovative companies in their books, also spoke at the event. To close the summit, Cotton Incorporated's President and CEO, J. Berrye Worsham, spoke about what he sees as the future for sustainability in relation to cotton.

“Going forward, we need to continue educating others about cotton and take a more aggressive stance about what is most important — that cotton is a natural and renewable fiber,” he commented.

“In the past 15 years, cotton's inputs have been drastically reduced, while outputs (both yield and quality) have continued to improve. And with the technology getting more and more advanced, production efforts will further reduce the environmental footprint of cotton.”

Additionally, Worsham updated the audience on key initiatives in which Cotton Incorporated has been involved relating to sustainability such as the research advancements in finding new uses for cotton by-products, the breakthrough of reducing the chemical gossypol in cottonseed making it edible for human consumption, and the denim drive that collected more than 20,000 pairs of jeans that were recycled into insulation used to rebuild hurricane-destroyed houses.

“In fact, just this past year, Fast Company magazine singled out Cotton Incorporated as one of the top 50 companies making a difference in the world,” he said. “We're very proud of our accomplishments on behalf of U.S. producers and importers — and we will continue to be innovative in our efforts to increase cotton's sustainability moving forward.”

Cotton Incorporated also debuted the new Natural trademark, which incorporates the widely-recognized Seal of Cotton trademark, now being offered to retailers and brands as a way for consumers to quickly identify cotton products as the natural choice.

To learn more about what the Cotton Research & Promotion Program is doing for cotton and the environment and to read the special “green” edition of Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor magazine, visit www.cottoninc.com/sustainability.

The Cotton Research & Promotion Act established the Cotton Board as a quasi-governmental, non-profit entity to serve as the administrator of the Cotton Research & Promotion Program.

Funded by America's cotton producers and importers through the cotton checkoff, the program's research and promotion activities are conducted worldwide by Cotton Incorporated, the Cotton Board's sole-source contracting organization, to increase the demand for and improve the market position of cotton.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Cotton Research & Promotion Program continues to work in all areas of cotton's pipeline — from the field to the consumer — to keep cotton the number one fiber choice in the U.S.

For more information about the Cotton Board and the innovative activities stemming from the program, visit www.cottonboard.org.