How Timberland, Vans, VF Corp. Are Making Sure Their Cotton Isn't ‘Greenwashed'

Norielle Thomas, Smallholder Farmers Alliance
  • VF Corp., which owns Timberland, Vans and The North Face, bought the first-ever verified regenerative cotton crop in Haiti earlier this year with the help of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance.
  • Data tracking is allowing farmers to make profit off of both their actual crops and their data.
  • Growing consumer demand for sustainable products continues to fuel companies' adoptions of greener practices, but regulatory scrutiny of the claims and concerns about "greenwashing" mean better data is needed.

As the harvest season finished at the end of January in Haiti, retail giant VF Corp. made a notable purchase: what is believed to be the first-ever verified regenerative cotton crop grown in the country. 

For the holding company behind brands like Timberland, The North Face, Supreme and Vans, the purchase was significant. For one, it signaled a broader approach to sustainable farming, evolving from an earlier focus on organic cotton — where the emphasis is on the elimination of inputs including pesticides and synthetic fertilizers — to regenerative cotton agriculture practices, which place greater importance on soil health, water retention, and local economic benefits, in addition to the chemical input management.

Timberland had already reintroduced cotton to Haiti following a 30-year absence from the country in collaboration with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, a nonprofit that establishes farmer cooperatives. After five years of study and field experiments, the company introduced its first products made with Haitian-grown organic cotton in the spring of 2021, including two types of sneakers and a tote bag. But the focus quickly moved to regenerative agriculture, a practice more activist shareholders are pressing with big consumer companies. 

"Regenerative agriculture is really important to Timberland and VF because it's about restoring the soil," said Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland's director of social impact and activation. "We feel like it's a way to directly address climate change. I think a lot of brands talk about sustainability, and we do as well, but if you think about sustainability, it's really about doing no harm and maintaining things as they are. And regenerative is really drawing a line that's higher."

Behind the scenes, there is another notable aspect to the agricultural first related to technology. With support for Timberland, VF Corp. and VF Foundation, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance worked with Terra Genesis — a Thailand-based firm that VF just announced this week it has a collaboration with on sourcing regenerative rubber — and the Data Economics Company to create a farm data tracking service to verify regenerative cotton crops.

When a farmer decides to work with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, a local agronomist will start coming to their farm and collecting data on regenerative farming, as well as establishing the standards that these farms must meet. If a farm passes the survey, farmers profit not only from the cotton sale, but from the data that verifies the cotton is regenerative.

VF Corp's efforts with regenerative cotton in Haiti come at a time of growing pressure from consumers for companies to adopt more sustainable practices.

Three out of five consumers in a recent survey claimed that at least half of their last purchase consisted of socially responsible or sustainable products, according to the IBM Institute for Business Value

"This consumer demand drives the brands and big companies to want to use more of these products produced in that way," said Jennifer Hinkel, managing director and CGO of the Data Economics Company.

Consumer brands facing greater 'greenwashing' scrutiny

But corporate sustainability claims are being more aggressively challenged by regulators and politicians.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission charged Kohl's and Walmart with falsely advertising their rayon products as bamboo since 2015, with the companies agreeing to pay $5.5 million in combined penalties.

The FTC is weighing even stiffer penalties for "greenwashing" and is currently contemplating a revised set of rules for environmental marketing claims, with a public comment period set to end later this month.

"If there's no traceability, there's no evidence that it is what you say it is," said Patricia Jurewicz, founder and CEO of the human rights nonprofit organization Responsible Sourcing Network. "People want to know. You don't want to be saying that there's better cotton in this product, if in reality, there's cotton in there that could be contributing to forced labor or other harmful practices," she added.

This data collection process also gives smallholder farmers a greater say in their relationship with big brands, shifting the balance of power a little in an industry that long favored the consumer companies, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, especially with food crops. The Rockefeller Foundation is currently looking at similar regenerative verification for food agriculture around the world.

The way that the data is collected and packaged is designed to give ownership to the farmer for licensing. "You don't actually get ownership of the data as VF or a customer. You get to license it and use it for specific purposes," said Data Economics Company managing director and CTO Arka Ray. 

Data Economics Company serves as the operating system for the entity managing the effort for farmers, Smallholder Data Services, and the farm level data traceability all the way through to the end purchasers, such as VF, and traceability back to compensating the farmers. Empowering small farms in direct connection with larger brands and markets, will be important to bringing sustainability through to the consumer end market, Hinkel said. 

Taking regenerative agriculture global will be a challenge

Applying this approach to the cotton industry and associated products will be complicated. Most cotton is blended with other cotton crops based on characteristics of the cotton, including color, strength, length, and price point, "and what's realistic for some of the fast fashion that's out there," Jurewicz said. "What's harder is applying these technologies to conventional cotton, to all the cotton that's out there, rather than just to the real responsible cotton," she said.

Even with progress made in recent years on organic cotton production, it's still a tiny piece of the global industry. The 2020/21 global harvest of certified organic cotton was up 37% year over year, according to the Textile Exchange, but that represents 1.4% of all cotton grown globally. And Haiti, in particular, plays a very small role in global production, having only reinitiated cotton farming in recent years. The top five cotton-producing nations — India, China, the U.S., Brazil and Pakistan — control 77% of the global output, according to OECD data.

Nevertheless, while regenerative agriculture may be an emerging concept in developed markets like the United States and Europe, it isn't new to Haitian farmers.

"When it's introduced to smallholder farmers, we don't really say, 'Oh, here's a new thing called regenerative' because they recognize each of the practices of regenerative agriculture as things they've done in the past, things their parents did," said Hugh Locke, senior editor president and co-founder of Smallholder Farmers Alliance and Smallholder Data Services.

VF Corp. was introduced to Haiti through Timberland, which started its efforts in the country in 2010 when the footwear company became the founding corporate sponsor for the Smallholder Farmers Alliance. Originally, Timberland and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance worked together on a tree planting operation under which smallholders were rewarded with credits for helping to reach the goal of planting 5 million trees, and they could then use those credits in exchange for seed, tools, training and other agricultural services.

McIlwraith says that Timberland and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance saw unexpected benefits from that program back on the farm, producing a 40% increase in smallholder farmers' organic crop yields and 50% to 100% increases in farmers' incomes.

"Haiti is so degraded, environmentally talking, and because of that any other project cannot be sustainable. So, we tackle the problem from its roots, which is environmental degradation in the country," said Timote Georges, executive director and co-founder of Smallholder Farmers Alliance.

Tracking and verifying this data has encouraged more farmers to switch to regenerative cotton farming.

"There is a positive community kind of peer pressure that emerges and encourages farms to participate in this data network. … And which then by osmosis gets more and more farms to adopt regenerative practices because the ROI loop is very clear," Ray said.

As brands create stricter goals tied to production practices, they will need to be able to demonstrate that they're meeting them. "So I think all of that together, it will continue to incentivize this type of data tracking traceability," Jurewicz said.

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