Cotton producers and those who support them have always known that cotton provides a comfortable, natural choice for clothing and other textile uses, but with increased emphasis on sustainability, the industry has seen a need to analyze the process from field to the disposition of cotton garments.

Vision 21, a Cotton Foundation Project supported through financial contributions from Monsanto and John Deere, and jointly managed by the National Cotton council, Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated, has worked for three years to develop a sustainability model.

Representatives from those three organizations discussed progress and next steps during the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta.

The project also looks at the logistics of U.S. cotton production and demand from Asian customers.

Bill Norman, NCC, said the project has looked into various aspects of fiber production and included field to market, transportation, textile manufacturing and consumer handling.

“A key component of the project has been to develop a life cycle inventory of cotton and cotton textile production and then conduct a life cycle analysis for select garments,” Norman said.

The project included other commodity groups, including the Field to Market Alliance and various food groups. “We want to identify how to measure sustainability and develop a matrix for specific fields,” he said.

Kim Kitchings, senior director, corporate strategic planning and program metrics, Cotton Incorporated, said the life cycle inventory identifies the processes and/or materials that have the biggest impact on a particular part of a product’s life cycle.

“The area where the biggest impact occurs is a good starting point to examine changes that can be made to improve the process,” she said.

“First we have to understand cotton’s footprint before we compare it to other fibers or identify how we can reduce that footprint.”

Pipeline analysis

The study includes production (seed to bale), textile production (bale to fabric) and consumer end-use. That information helps identify “the overall environmental footprint,” she said, and includes such issues as water use, greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.

“We can use this information to support cotton’s sustainability message,” she said.

Farmers benefit by learning more about such production practices as water use, irrigation scheduling and nitrogen efficiency.

Kitchings said analyses show energy use is highest at the consumer phase.

Norman said the information may be used to counter claims, some by manmade fibers, that are “misleading. We need the data to establish a data set for a cotton life cycle analysis.”

He said the data set should become the industry standard.

The study has produced 32 cotton flow recommendations, nine of which have been scored “high priority by the vision 21 Flow committee. Current NCC policy addresses 15 of the remaining 23 recommendations,” Norman said.

Issues affecting warehousing and classing data may improve efficiency, he said. “We hope to reduce the number of times we handle a bale in the warehouse with a better identification system.”

Also part of the project is a cotton logistics study that includes a flow analysis; reviewed status of merchandising, data systems, warehousing and transportation; and development of a least cost model.

China and India demand

Allen Terhaar, Cotton Council International, discussed Asian markets, emphasizing China and India. “We focused on consumption patterns of textile and apparel products in major metropolitan areas of China and India,” Terhaar said.

He said lack of reliable data on the biggest producers/spinners in China and India cloud demand projections for Asian markets. “Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated have been active in research and promotion in China and India for decades,” he said. “We sensed the importance of the emerging consumer but have had little solid data. Vision 21, along with a USDA grant for China, gave us an opportunity to gather consumer data.”

Armed with better information, Cotton Incorporated and NCC economists are now working on models and professional papers to improve data distribution. With better data, the U.S. cotton industry can “better determine current and future end-use of cotton consumption in China and India,” Terhaar said.

Survey results show that a majority of Chinese consumers prefer cotton but do not seek out fiber. Also, higher income consumers allocate more money to savings so apparel consumption slows among high income consumers.

Terhaar said 83 percent of Chinese consumers say cotton and cotton blends are their favorite and 92 percent rate cotton as comfortable. And 72 percent labeled cotton as “environmentally friendly.”

A retail audit showed 82 percent of Chinese apparel contains cotton and 93 percent of those are cotton dominant.

Cotton is estimated at around 60 percent of India’s apparel.

“India’s growth rate is lower than China’s,” Terhaar said. Economic growth is also “not as high or as broadly distributed” as China’s.

He said a key goal is to “establish the United States as a leader in the global industry to enhance the cotton supply chain.” Another goal is to “provide the global cotton industry with added decision making tools in competition with synthetics.”

Terhaar suggested Cotton’s Revolution website as a key resource (www.cottonsrevolution.org).

The thinking continues, Norman said. “At a minimum, we will improve the information flow through consumers to provide a better understanding of cotton’s sustainability and natural fiber characteristics,” he said.