A Materra, hydroponic cotton facility. Photo credit: Materra

A Materra, hydroponic cotton facility. Photo credit: Materra

A new two-year project has launched to pilot what is described as a radically resource-efficient cotton farming technology, with the goal of ultimately scaling the solution in key regions where cotton agriculture is challenged by limited resources such as water and few solutions for pest control.

Spearheaded by global sustainable fashion innovation platform Fashion for Good, the project launches today (26 January) with operational and financial support from KeringPVH Corp, and global textile manufacturer Arvind Limited. It will investigate technology developed by Fashion for Good innovator, Materra (formerly hydroCotton).

Materra's innovative combination of precision agriculture, environmental control, and real-time data tracking facilitate resilience for cotton farming in developing regions where climate and resources prove challenging for cotton cultivation.

The project leverages Arvind's local knowledge and network and will see a 1.5-hectare farm established in the Gujarat region of India, where there are limited solutions for successful pest control and limited success growing extra-long-staple cotton. Fashion for Good initiated and will manage the project in addition to financing the pilot through an equity investment in Materra.

The farm will grow extra-long-staple cotton, which is often used in more high-end products and provides the region with opportunities to explore implementing the fibre that has historically not been grown in large volumes in Northern India as its cultivation requires specific climatic conditions that are only met in a limited number of regions. The cotton generated on the farm, which will total three tonnes by the completion of the project, will be divided amongst the three partners to produce garments that will be made commercially available from 2023.

"Testing and adopting leading-edge sustainable cotton innovations, such as Materra's, is central to expanding our sustainable product offerings for our consumers. It's also an enabler in fulfilling our enterprise-wide commitment to procure 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. We're looking forward to featuring this cotton in future Calvin Klein products," says Aksel Parmaksiz, senior vice president sustainable business transformation at Calvin Klein, part of PVH Corp.

Christine Goulay, head of sustainable innovation at Kering, adds: "Materra's innovation brings in producing extra-long-staple cotton in India, as well as the live production data that will be gathered throughout the pilot. This aligns with Kering's goals in both raw materials,  which makes up 65% of the Kering Group's overarching environmental footprint, and traceability, helping us move towards achieving our goal of reducing our overall footprint by 40% by 2025." 

More than 60% of the world's cotton is produced by smallholder cotton farmers, and around 90% of these estimated 100m smallholder farmers live in developing countries and grow the crop on less than two hectares. Under poor management practices, cotton can contribute to over-consumption of water, fertilisers, and pesticides. Innovation in farming practices such as precision agriculture improve resource efficiency and resilience for cotton farming.

"Cotton makes up nearly 30% of global textile production, yet accounts for 24% of global insecticide use and being a water-intensive crop, can require up to 10,000 litres of water per kilogram in its cultivation," Fashion For Good says. "Innovation in cotton farming practices is greatly needed to reduce pesticide, land and water use."

"38% of the fashion industry's carbon footprint lies with raw materials production, preparation and processing, innovations in this area such as radically resource-efficient cotton farming, a staple fibre for the industry, is hugely important. This consortium pilot project brings together unique expertise from across the supply chain to pilot and ultimately scale this solution in key regions," says Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good.

Materra's approach to cotton farming combines precision agriculture and controlled environments to create radically resource-efficient cotton farms. Efficient irrigation, preventing excess water loss, delivers agricultural inputs directly to the plant's root system where they can be efficiently absorbed and is pesticide-free, using biological pest control to manage pest outbreaks. Farms are equipped with a network of smart sensors to track data in real-time enabling enhanced environmental and social assurance.

Over the last two years, Materra has run three consecutive cotton trials at its UK test site in Essex. These trials allowed it to generate its initial cotton growth recipe, create production baselines and run fibre tests with mills. 

"We see Materra's solution as playing an integral role in our future sourcing strategy," says Abhishek Bansal, head of sustainability at Arvind Limited. "Their technology combines precision agriculture and controlled environments to create a radically resource-efficient cotton farm. This results in reductions in water, land use, and carbon emissions, as well as pesticide removal."

Next steps

Officially kicking off today (26 January), the next three months of the pilot will focus on installing the pilot farm to be ready for planting in April, with the first harvest taking place towards the end of the year. 

The pilot includes collating data and key learnings to identify the next best location for the team to apply the technology. The focus will predominantly be in regions where cotton agriculture is challenged by limited resources such as water, few solutions for pest control, and limited success at growing extra-long-staple cotton.

Wide-scale implementation of Materra's innovation will provide small-scale farms with the positive social benefits of increasing their yields, as well as enabling them to grow extra-long-staple cotton which is commercially more desirable. Simultaneously, it positively benefits the environment, leading to increased water savings, a reduction in pesticide use, and enhanced traceability in the upstream supply chain.