Bargains, value and quality once were high on the list of America’s retail shoppers, but now retailers must “connect emotionally” to consumers to get them to buy cotton and other merchandise, according to Peter McGrath, product development for J.C. Penney.

This is forcing not only retailers to become more “socially and environmentally responsible,” but corporations like J.C. Penney are demanding the same responsibility from their suppliers.

And U.S. cotton is one of Penney’s biggest suppliers.

Cotton Incorporated (CI) is working hard to put a sustainable spin on U.S cotton production. However, CI need not be a spin doctor because cotton has long been sustainable, regardless of how it’s defined, according to CI’s new board chairman, Kings County, Calif. cotton producer Ted Sheely.

McGrath, a member of the Cotton Board, represents a $20 billion a year U.S. retailer with 1,200 stores nationwide. J.C. Penney is the largest Internet retailer in the U.S., bigger than even Wal-Mart, McGrath points out.

Quality has not been relegated to a lower priority by consumers, pointed out McGrath at a recent briefing at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, hosted by CI and the Cotton Board. Now consumers want products manufactured or grown with an environmental awareness. And J.C. Penney has a compliance program to make sure suppliers meet particular criteria.

This can range from packaging recycling to meeting water quality requirements in manufacturing plants to agreeing to avoid the use of restricted dyeing and finishing chemicals in textile manufacturing.

For the cotton farmer, J.C. Penney is demanding sustainable agriculture practices, but McGrath hastened to add he believes U.S. cotton growers are using sustainable farming practices.

Sustainable farming definitions are numerous. Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League found 27, and there are probably more.

J. Berrye Worsham, CI president, prefers to identify sustainable farming as an evolving process rather than a destination. CI is touting U.S. cotton’s sustainable, green record with videos featuring CI’s resurrected Fabric of Our Lives theme.

Sheely, a former Western Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton award winner for his conservation-conscious farming practices, said sustainability on his farm is not a new buzzword. It is something he and other farmers have been doing for a long time. He agreed with Worsham that it is ever evolving.

For example he said 10 years ago the nitrogen benchmark for producing a bale of cotton was the application of 160 pounds N field-wide. Precision agriculture/variable rate technology has made that and many other practices obsolete on his farm.

For almost a decade, Sheely’s farm near Stratford, Calif. has been involved in commercial research, validating the latest precision ag technology.

Using aerial imagery, Sheely maps his farm and then writes variable rate prescriptions for everything from gypsum applications to seeding rates to variable rate fertilizer to variable plant growth regulators and defoliants.

He and most of his neighbors have gone from one-size-fits-all across a cotton field to three to five rates or more across a field based on field conditions. This is part of the ongoing evolution of sustainable cotton production.

Rather than changing the way cotton is farmed, producers are telling a successful story of sustainability.

email: hcline@farmpress.com