Cotton’s Role in Reducing Apparel Industry Carbon Emissions
The World Resources Institute (WRI) recently published an emission reduction roadmap, laying out an ambitious path for the apparel industry to move towards net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It offers welcome guidance for the value chain leveraging existing datasets, with interesting and innovative suggestions for improvement.
The need for the apparel industry to build a pathway to net zero carbon could not be more urgent. Scientists have been ringing the alarm bell on GHG emissions reduction for more than three decades, and WRI noted that “Unchecked, emissions will grow to 1.588 Gt by 2030, well off pace to deliver the 45 percent absolute reduction needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.”
The ambitious nature of this report underscores the need for an “all of the above” approach to dramatically reduce our GHG emissions, as well as improving other sustainability metrics such as water use efficiency, soil health, conservation and biodiversity.
Collectively the cotton industry is committed to growing cotton more sustainably – and a major component of this goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The industry has implemented some initial first steps to reduce GHG emissions – already, the U.S. cotton industry has committed to a 39% reduction in GHG emissions by 2025. This improvement builds upon a 25% reduction in GHG over the past 40 years.
In the 2019/20 crop year, 30% of the global supply of cotton was from preferred cotton fiber production program such as the Better Cotton (BC), the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, and organic, all of which encourage or require more sustainable production practices as well as provide some type of third-party verification of a reduced supply chain risk. Participation in these programs provides growers market access and additional resources defining best management practices supporting more sustainable cotton production. With regards to GHG emissions, however, there are a variety of achievable pathways to mitigate climate impacts for every grower. Regardless of whether cotton is produced from a preferred source or not, many of the techniques for reducing carbon emissions are the same. Cotton fields around the globe all have their own unique characteristics. Regardless of whether a grower is producing organic or conventional cotton, the levers and mechanisms for reducing GHG emissions are more alike than different.
Relying solely on organic cotton to reach emission reduction targets is not a realistic approach towards reaching net zero in the desired timeframe. With organic cotton accounting for less than 1% of global production, even with WRIs ambitious target to increase organic production to 3% globally by 2030 will create limited GHG emission reduction benefits due to limited scale. Instead, the industry needs to have an inclusive focus to reach as many growers as possible (regardless of production system) with financial incentives and support to help speed up the process of continuous improvement. This approach will be critical to reach GHG emission reductions at the scale needed to limit global temperature to 1.5°C or less.
Many cotton producers around the globe have made extensive progress scaling best management practices aimed at improving soil health and sequestering carbon in the ground. The WRI report proposes a savings of 39 million metric tons of CO2e through transitioning to more sustainable materials across the entire apparel industry – but only accounts for 1.26 million tons of CO2e reductions from cotton. However, the cotton industry already envisions a reduction of 13.8 million metric tons, or 35% of the total WRI target, through realistic production changes and other attainable solutions. These specific opportunities include:
Key drivers of carbon emission reductions
The opportunities for the cotton industry to mitigate GHGs can be organized into five major approaches:
Increasing production efficiency
Regenerative agriculture and increasing soil carbon
Biogenic carbon use and capture (in cotton textiles)
Transition to renewable energy for cotton production and ginning needs
Reduction of energy use and CO2e emissions in manufacturing agrochemicals.
The table below shows key strategies to reducing and capturing carbon in the cotton value chain along with who in the value chain will need to make the change, the difficulty of the change, and the potential GHG reductions as a result of these changes. These subjective rating values were determined by Cotton Incorporated sustainability and agricultural experts using peer reviewed literature, life cycle assessment data, and basic engineering principles. Looking at carbon reduction options through these three lenses can help focus the industry on improvements that are most likely to have the desired outcomes that work for all producers.
Many of the reduction pathways in the table are both realistic to implement in the near term and have significant GHG emission reduction potential. Increasing cover crop use and incorporating renewable energy at gins are examples of “low-hanging fruit” reduction opportunities. It is important to note that not all of these suggested changes will work in all production regions and on all farms. There are real constraints from climatic conditions, pest pressures, soil types, and financial situations that can impede the widespread adoption of these changes. However, sustainable cotton programs such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol are finding innovative ways to implement these best practices and acquire additional financial resources to help de-risk grower adoption of sustainability practices.
Bold and immediate action on reducing GHG emissions in the apparel industry is both a business and societal imperative. It is also imperative that we do not have tunnel vision focusing solely on climate change. Interventions made across the industry should work towards decreasing climate change impacts and reducing other impact categories such as in water and soil loss. Growers engaging in preferred fiber programs, such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, have a clear focus on sustainability, however, regardless of the sustainability program or production system used, the levers for change are consistent.
Because of the magnitude of potential GHG reductions in the cotton industry (with the presented approach exceeding the reductions laid out by the WRI report), it is imperative that we act. Cotton Incorporated is dedicated to communicating with growers on emerging research and best management practices via platforms such as Cotton Cultivated, conferences and grower field days in order to provide growers with these needed resources. Looking towards the future, we will continue to provide critical research and industry leadership aligning sustainable cotton programs, brands, and NGOs towards science-based solutions that will further position cotton as one of the most sustainable materials for generations to come.
Via: Jesse Daystar, Vice President, Chief Sustainability Officer
 Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, 2021. Environmental Outcomes from On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States (Fourth Edition) page 26. ISBN: 978-0-578-33372-4
 Textile Exchange, 2021. Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2021, page 17.
 Textile Exchange, 2020. Organic Cotton Market Report 2020 Covering production trends and initiative updates from the 2018/19 harvest year, page 27.
Mullins, G. and C. Burmester. 1990. Dry matter, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium accumulation by four cotton varieties. Agronomy Journal 82(4): 729-736.
Bronson, K. Nitrogen Use Efficiency of Cotton Varies with Irrigation System. Better Crops/Vol. 92 (2008, No. 4).
Main, C.L., L.T. Barber, R.K. Boman, K. Chapman, D.M. Dodds, S. Duncan, K.L. Edmisten, P. Horn, M.A. Jones, G.D. Morgan, E.R. Norton, S. Osborne, J.R.Whitaker, R.L. Nichols, and K.F. Bronson. 2013. Effects of Nitrogen and Planting Seed Size on Cotton Growth, Development, and Yield. Agronomy Journal: 105:6 pages 1853-1859.
Funk, P., and R. Hardin. Cotton gin electrical energy use trends and 2009 audit results. 2012. Applied Engineering in Agriculture 28(4): 503-510.
Baker, K. and E. Hughs. 2012. A survey of seed cotton dryers in cotton gins in the southwestern United States. Applied Engineering in Agriculture 28(1): 87‐97.
Cotton Incorporated (2021). Monthly Economic Letter: Cotton Market Fundamentals & Price Outlook, February 2021.