Data that delivers: the potential for fashion brands and retailers to tap into powerful data on the path to sustainability

By Dr. Gary Adams, president, U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol

Adams: data that will make the difference

A decade ago, sustainability was a cause championed by a visionary minority in fashion. Now, a better understanding of fashion’s environmental footprint and growing consumer demand for sustainable apparel means this is an issue for all brands and retailers, and especially those wanting to stay competitive in a tough economic environment. 

It’s been fascinating to see the apparent tipping point in interest around more sustainable fashion come about in the last few years. A 2020 McKinsey survey found 67% of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials an important purchasing factor. In addition to this consumer expectation, brands are now facing increasing regulation, with the EU’s roadmap for its Strategy for Sustainable Textiles being the most recent indicator of what’s to come. 

As a result, brands and retailers have set sustainability agendas, commitments and goals. But while these are undoubtable markers of progress, delivery against them is now increasingly pressing, particularly in the approach to key milestone years like 2025. 

For fashion brands and retailers, data is therefore an important asset: hard evidence to show progress, demonstrate continuous improvement and set new goals. A 2020 Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by the Trust Protocol found that while 53% of fashion executives sited collecting data as a sustainable measure their companies were implementing, a need for better and more consistent data, still existed. 

It’s data that will make the difference, allowing brands to evidence sustainability successfully and credibly through measurable metrics. Data is also the key to greater transparency: businesses can effectively communicate progress to their stakeholders – be that consumers, investors or policymakers. 

The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol is a data-driven initiative, working with one of fashion’s most prevalent natural materials: cotton. Although significant improvements have been made in the last 35 years – for instance water use per pound of U.S. cotton produced has dropped 79% during that time – there is still room for progress for sustainable cotton.   

To date, like fashion brands and retailers, cotton growers have had limited access to reliable data to effectively measure their sustainability performance and inform decision making in the field. The Trust Protocol works by supplying year-on-year farm level data to participating growers so they can drive continuous improvement, while providing brands and retailer members with access to sustainable cotton, backed up by the data they need.  

We’re already working with some of the world’s leading fashion names: including Gap Inc. and FTSE 100 retailer Next Plc. as they work towards their pledges to source 100% sustainable raw materials. And we’re proud to be certified as a preferred material by the Textile Exchange, meaning fashion houses can allocate Trust Protocol cotton towards sustainably sourced targets.

100% sustainable cotton by 2025 

“Currently Gap Inc. is 57% of the way towards our target of sourcing all our cotton from more sustainable sources by 2025, so we chose to partner with the Trust Protocol – as a preferred Textile Exchange supplier – to help us realise that goal.  

Continuous improvement in sustainability is important to Gap Inc., and with two-thirds of U.S. cotton not using any irrigation at all, we’re now on course to also show our progress against our water stewardship commitment.  

“Gap Inc. is committed to furthering our commitment to sustainable cotton and now have access to a broad range of data to show our progress.”

Alice Hartley, Director, Product Sustainability, Gap Inc.

The fashion industry is wide-reaching and full of innovation, so of course it’s not only raw cotton production where data is being utilised. Stella McCartney recently partnered to test Google’s data-processing by quantifying the performance of various fibres. Elsewhere, blockchain looks set to take the fashion industry by storm – if it hasn’t already. 

Taking sustainability seriously is now a necessity and no longer a choice for brands and retailers. Communicating that to consumers, while justifying the claims brands and retailers make, will be the key to success, and here trusted data is essential.  

This year and the years to follow hold huge potential for fashion and despite the damaging impact of COVID-19 the industry is expected to keep driving towards more sustainable practices. Capturing and utilizing data must play a significant role in driving continual improvement, for what is not measured cannot be changed.