Most sustainable cotton management frameworks just skim the surface. The leaders at Wrangler wanted to dig deeper. The American denim brand sought to understand the actual effects of cotton farming on the environment.
“Even the organizations that are trying to do something meaningful find themselves tripped up. If you highlight a ‘sustainable’ cotton, that means all the rest is unsustainable, right?” says Roian Atwood, senior director of global sustainable business for Wrangler. “So we started by rejecting all frameworks.”
The brand, which produced its first pair of jeans in 1947, turned to science. What the company discovered led to a new denim collection called Rooted made using traceable cotton from family farms in five states.
Atwood recently spoke with Environmental Leader about the denim brand’s novel approach to sustainable cotton sourcing, including the long-term advantages for the company — and the hurdles that remain.
How does Wrangler define “sustainable” for cotton?
We went to the Natural Resources Conservation Service field agents of the USDA and asked, for cotton growing systems, what would be the big opportunities to have positive environmental impacts? And, after researching 47 scientific studies and doing analysis with support from the Nature Conservancy and the Soil Health Institute, it’s three key practices.
The first one is the use of cover crops in the off-season like a pea, winter wheat, or rye residue. These crops keep the soil intact, and we have to conserve soil. It has an extreme amount of value. The second is complex rotation, planting three different crops in the same field over a five-year timeframe. Growing cotton every year, pests build up, requiring additional insecticides.
A third practice, used in tandem with cover crops, is conservation tillage or strip tillage. Instead of tilling open the earth, you only till six inches, drop in a seed, and fold the soil back over. The cover acts like a weed barrier and in some cases reduces virtually all competing weeds, eliminating the need for herbicides.
What are the advantages of these farming practices?
A grower using these three practices is able to sequester three times as much carbon out of the atmosphere. Water is retained better to help in times of flooding and drought. There are economic benefits: reducing the number of tractor passes to till the earth and spray. The total net gain is really significant.
The cotton growers we affectionately call the “Wrangler Five” in the five states of the Rooted collection all share data with us. We have a platform called MyFarms, and we have them track and measure their inputs every year for the fields. The result is a verifiable score. They’re exceeding state and national averages.
For Wrangler, are there cost savings?
We don’t necessarily own or control any element of the farms, so this is their P&L. If anything, it costs us more because we’re working small-scale. But we’re thinking of the value that comes from adopting it more widely.
We’re in partnership with the Soil Health Institute and the Walmart Foundation to train 2,000 farmers over the next three years on these land stewardship practices. We’re also sponsoring small field trials in North Carolina on rye residue cover crops’ ability to mitigate noxious weeds like palmer amaranth that are challenging farmers.
Since this requires investment, what’s the long-term goal for your brand?
If we see growers utilize these practices, the long-term benefit is a more resilient supply chain that is able to survive in times of flooding and drought. Unfortunately we haven’t solved for hail yet. That’s something we still need to engineer.
The newest science says that there’s a translocation of organic soil carbon from the upper-most layer into lower levels of the soil horizon. That means we can drive carbon deeper into soil in a way we haven’t dreamed before, and solve global problems with very little technology or capital from a farming perspective.
What are the biggest challenges around this cotton sourcing?
Farming is not an easy vocation. Farms have to consolidate and bigger to survive, and a lot of people get left out of that equation. There’s a rising rate of suicide amongst farmers and ranchers in the United States. That’s a reason to pause and reflect.
Then there’s a cultural element. You’re basically asking someone to change what their family has done for generations. We have to challenge conventional thinking. That doesn’t necessarily come quickly.
Lastly is the nameless facelessness of supply chains. Commodity organizations thrive when they can obscure where things come from. With the Rooted collection, we rejected that and said we want to maintain connectivity to a farm. But that’s harder to do on a larger scale. If we have a problem where fabric failed, did it fail because it was in our hands and we did something wrong — or did it fail because the fiber was not good quality? With traceability we can comb back, so there’s apprehension about the business implications.
What advice would you give apparel industry leaders?
Just start somewhere. Resources are limited, but do something. Be active. Be authentic. Ask the tough questions of yourself and your partners.
Connect design, development, supply chain activity, and all your commercial activity to the reason your organization has come to be. It’s a powerful force that helps guide strategic choices.
So, an example of a tough question would be?
One is how to choose between certain trade-off categories. We have a big focus on water recycling. In 2016, we reported 3 billion liters avoided — actual liters read from the meter. We deployed the best available technology, but adding wastewater treatment also starts driving up energy consumption. What’s the value in preserving water resources when you know you’re consuming more electricity?
In that example, we think that it is worthwhile to pursue the water recycling tech, but some of our next steps are to make that a renewable energy footprint. They’re sequential steps. We continue to move forward. You can’t let those types of difficult questions stop you from taking action today.