When Cotton Incorporated set out to do a life cycle assessment (LCA) of cotton’s impact – from the field through consumer usage – they knew it wasn’t going to be quick or easy. “We thought we’d give our LCA consultancy some information about how cotton is produced and processed and they would just run it through their system to get results,” Cotton Incorporated CEO Berrye Worsham told Cotton International during a recent interview. “But so many factors go into the life cycle of cotton that when you lay it all out, you either need a ton of data, or you have to do a lot of speculation.
“We didn’t want to speculate because we wanted to produce as much factual data as possible, and we wanted it to be ISO-compliant as well, which means it needed to be peer-reviewed.”
According to Cotton Incorporated, an LCA is “a systematic evaluation of the potential environmental impact and resource utilization of a product, starting at the raw material stage and ending with disposal at the end of the product’s life.” The data needed to be beyond question, from a validity point of view, because the LCA would have to stand against the scrutiny of cotton’s opponents. But as important as the public credibility of the study was to its designers, Cotton Incorporated’s leadership wanted to know exactly what cotton’s footprint was, not just what they could use to combat misconceptions about the fiber’s environmental impact.
“The LCA was all about measurement and improvement, and you can’t make measurable progress if you don’t know where you started,” Worsham says. “Doing the study was far more complex than we ever thought it would be. We thought it would be a 6-12 month process, but it took over 2 years. We’re still putting the finishing touches on the process that started more than 2 years ago, so we aren’t in position to do another one – perhaps 5 years is a reasonable time.”
For the next attempt, one major goal will be to get greater transparency from cotton production outside of the U.S., along with overall increased participation from mills worldwide, Worsham says.