Cotton’s connection to the climate—considering its impact on soil and the sheer scale of product produced, given its versatility—has the textile leaders at an impasse; the industry cannot reach its collective net-zero goals without transforming cotton production.
Per 2020 research from McKinsey, fashion is responsible for roughly 4 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. Around 40 percent of those emissions come from raw material production, according to the World Resource Institute (WRI) and the Apparel Impact Institute’s (Aii) 2021 “Roadmap to Net Zero” report, of which cotton makes up 27 percent by volume.
As such, cotton has been the driving force behind many sustainability initiatives in recent years. Though progress has been made, significant barriers—like convoluted value chains and a deficiency of clear data—are preventing meaningful change from occurring. Not to mention, cotton farmers hoping to move away from the traditional, carbon-intensive practices are met with high upfront costs, yield changes and a lack of financial support.
Acknowledging the need for new approaches, the Fashion Pact has released the first report from its “Unlock” project, which aims to create a climate-friendly future for cotton.
The Paris-based nonprofit representing one-third of the global fashion industry committed to mitigating climate change’s impact has partnered with the sustainability consultancy 2050.Cloud, which provided capacity-building support and strategic guidance.
The pilot phase of Unlock was launched in India and the United States in 2022. It will run until the end of the second quarter of 2024 with “the ambition of evaluating and implementing different accounting guidelines and quantification methods” for GHG emissions and methods for supporting Scope 3 claims.
To do that, Unlock is focused on providing additional incentives to farmers to increase resilience and make more regenerative cotton available as well as supporting brands in connecting with those farmers to make credible Scope 3 reduction claims.
Unlock brought together various players throughout the value chain, including 25 brands, soil emissions modeling organizations Indigo Ag and Regrow, and implementation partners Better Cotton, Organic Cotton Accelerator, California Cotton and Climate Coalition, Staple Cotton Cooperative Association, and the Carolinas Cotton Growers Cooperative.
“This collaboration has allowed us to work with a range of farm types and sizes to identify and implement practice changes, quantify the actual GHG impact (and other impacts), and use these to issue financial incentives to farmers called ‘Unlock Units,’” the Fashion Pact said. “At the same time, we have gathered critical data on farmer livelihoods, biodiversity, soil health and water use and will be publishing a series of papers to share insights and develop Unlock as a long-term solution.”
The first paper, “Comparative analysis of GHG accounting approaches and implications for the cotton value chain,” found that smallholder farmers in the Global South, in particular, struggle to quantify their GHG emissions.
Per the report, many smallholder farmers in India also don’t regularly monitor their practices and inputs “in the way required to create robust baselines” even though intervention accounting—which is used to estimate GHG impacts of actions relative to counterfactual baseline scenarios—requires “extensive baseline data and causality.” Thus, farmers without historical data could go multiple years without financial reward “in order to establish the baseline to then build upon with improved practices.”
The smallholder farmers who do have historical baseline data and those that are already involved in improvement programs, the nonprofit said, create a different challenge regarding double counting.
“A farmer already certified to a scheme with a global LCA factor would have to be able to show strong evidence they are taking additional steps they would not have taken already to avoid the risk of double counting,” the Fashion Pact said.
And pertaining to inventory accounting methods, even more barriers exist, such as the need for ongoing monitoring for reversals (when CO2 is released back into the atmosphere from the soil) and traceability.
“These are much more challenging to implement in a Global South context and the approach to baselining opens up the potential for inflated claims or perverse incentives,” the paper said, explaining that using a global average baseline may cause companies to “abandon farmers” in countries that have emissions worse than the global baseline.
Not everyone is pleased with the Fashion Pact’s findings or methodolgy.
Several industry players took to LinkedIn to voice their concerns. Crispin Argento, managing director at Sourcery, implored the Parisian group to “stop treating those that commit their land and livelihoods to growing [cotton] like fungible and faceless commodities.”
“We have to stop treating growers like dirt,” he wrote, “by asking them to gamble with Mother Nature six months and then Wall Street for another six thereafter and now perform ‘sustainability’ miracles for free.”
Brett Mathews, editor at Apparel Insider, called out eyebrow-raising numbers.
“[The Fashion Pact] stated that almost 40 percent of fashion’s GHG emissions come from raw material production,” he wrote. “A 2018 report by Quantis claimed raw materials represent 15 percent of the carbon footprint of fashion. That’s quite a divergence!”
And Samantha Taylor, founder of The Good Factory, a UK organization at the “forefront” of sustainable activewear manufacturing, found it “hilarious” that the Fashion Pact’s own website doesn’t support the numbers “thrown out” in the report.
“Although that’s not nearly as problematic as their language around cotton farmers in India and the Global South, who they obviously don’t think much of, for a collective of Western organizations,” she wrote.
While the report claims to acknowledge that many of the challenges revealed throughout the pilot process pertain to the Global South, The Fashion Pact is working with its partners to address these trials.