Sustainability in the cotton industry is more than just a good buzzword. It's good business.

And it makes sense all the way from the farm to retail shelves and into consumers' homes.

Customers are changing and expect retailers and manufacturers to be environmentally and socially responsible, says Peter McGrath, executive vice president and director, private brands, product development, quality and sourcing, J.C. Penney Company Inc.

“The cue comes from our customers,” McGrath said at a sustainability briefing sponsored by Cotton Incorporated during the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville.

He said customers want products that last a long time, are innovative and make as small an impact on the environment as possible. “U.S. cotton is a good example,” he said.

“(Customers) don't want excessive packaging. They expect us to operate in a sustainable manner.”

McGrath said customers also expect retailers and manufacturers to be aware of social and labor issues. “We seek partners, including manufacturers, with the same philosophy.”

McGrath said the J.C. Penney Company has won awards from the Environmental Protection Agency for its efforts at sustainability. He said the company operates in a sustainable manner “without compromising fashion and quality. Sustainability is an organic part of our vision.”

That vision includes improving social, labor and environmental conditions.

Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer, Cotton Incorporated, said the organization has been involved in sustainability for many years. “Farmers have been using conservation tillage for years. They've also improved water conservation and use integrated pest management systems. Anything they can do to increase yield means more cotton on less land.”

He said the effort goes throughout the industry with increased ginning efficiency and other initiatives that reduce environmental concerns.

He said Cotton Incorporated has intensified efforts in recent years to answer attacks on the industry. “Cotton has been attacked over sustainability the last few years. We are identifying our strengths and also identifying areas that need improvement. We know that U.S. cotton is the most sustainable in the world.”

He said the first priority has been to “set the record straight. We want to make certain that sound science drives opinions.”

Recent efforts have included a sustainability summit and educational efforts aimed at consumers, especially college age young adults. He said Cotton Incorporated has brought back the “Fabric of Our Lives” advertisements to emphasize the naturalness of cotton.

“Cotton Incorporated is serious about this issue,” Worsham said. “We'll use more research to move cotton to an even more sustainable position and capitalize on what we've already done in U.S. agriculture.”

He said cotton represents a product that's “natural, renewable and responsible.”

“Sustainability is good business,” said Ted Sheely, a Lemoore, Calif., farmer. “More cotton per acre with fewer inputs is my goal.” He's achieving that with precision agriculture techniques. “I use aerial imagery to identify specific parts of a field (that needs specific treatments). I quantify what we need to do.”

He said applying gypsum to saline soils improves productivity, but not every acre needs the same amount. Precision ag allows him to “designate the areas that need maintenance. I get better yields by identifying the weak spots.”

He uses the same theory for fertility, insecticide applications and plant growth regulator rates.

“Sustainability is nothing new,” he said. “We've been doing it a long time. It's just good business.”