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Consumers not happy with non-cotton fibers in denim

When cotton prices spiked to historic levels a few years ago, the apparel industry responded by substituting other fibers for cotton. Since then, they’ve seen pushback from customers demanding that cotton blend levels be restored. Many customers were upset because fiber substitution occurred in their denim jeans, which caused numerous problems.

For one male customer, something just didn’t feel right with his denim jeans. The material was as thin as paper and didn’t fit right. For a female purchaser, a pair of denim jeans she bought literally didn’t pass the smell test. For another fashion-conscious customer, her denim jeans got so baggy as the hours wore on that by the end of the day, she “felt like a rodeo clown.”

These are a sampling of complaints that started appearing on retail and brand apparel Web sites in 2011, after historically high cotton prices started a rash of fiber substitution for cotton.

Cotton Incorporated, which conducts producer-funded research and promotion to increase the demand and profitability of cotton, took notice of these criticisms and subsequently spent several months compiling and quantifying the consumer comments to determine what was happening.

According to Kim Kitchings, Cotton Incorporated’s vice president, corporate strategy and program metrics, the biggest complaints were reserved for denim, although customers were critical of a wide range of apparel products.

Among the more frequent consumers complaints were pilling, odor, fading, static cling, shrinking and loss of shape. But many found it hard to believe that in some instances their beloved denim jeans were no longer made of 100 percent cotton. In some high-end jeans, the substitute fiber was lyocell, derived from wood pulp. Several consumers reported that the jeans tended to shred after a wearing or two.

One consumer who purchased a pair of men’s denim jeans for $58 said of a cotton/polyester blend, “I’ve been buying this style jean for years, but the two I just bought (one black and one blue) were terrible. The denim was as thin as paper. And I don’t mean it was light-weight denim for the summer. I mean it was so thin that I think elevated cotton prices have forced (the brand) to cut quality to save money.”

Another commenter said she washed and then wore her cotton, polyester, rayon and spandex blend jeans to work and noticed a smell when she was in her car. “I was mortified when a co-worker told me flat out, ‘you stink!’ Went out on my break and bought a pair of pants and threw the stinky jeans in the trash.”

To date, the Cotton Incorporated project has analyzed more than 260,000 comments from 25 retail websites, resulting in a collection of reviews for more than 30,000 denim jeans, knit and woven shirts, dresses, pants and activewear.

“In general, we found that the industry and brands were doing a pretty good job,” Kitchings said. “However, there were issues related to odor, stretch and lack of recovery that were being caused by fiber substitution when cotton was taken out of certain product categories.”

Kitchings said that annual surveys conducted by Cotton Incorporated indicate that consumers are willing to dig into their pocketbooks for cotton. “We asked consumers if they would be willing to pay more to keep cotton in their product category. Eighty percent of consumers said they would pay anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent more.”

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Consumers soundly rejected denim jeans made with anything other than 100 percent cotton.

“Cotton owns the denim market, and the average consumer owns about seven pairs of denim jeans. They know what jeans are supposed to be made of. We found that when the fiber had been substituted, that’s when the consumers gave the jeans the lowest satisfaction ratings. There’s no doubt that the love affair for denim jeans is directly related to cotton.”

Cotton Incorporated is taking this message to retailers and brands through a new marketing program called Cotton or Nothing that addresses consumer reaction to cotton substitution.

As part of this campaign, Cotton Incorporated produced a short film depicting mannequins in the Meatpacking District in New York, “walking off the job,” in polyester protest.

Consumers were invited to join the protest by having their picture taken with the striking mannequins and signing a Cotton Or Nothing Manifesto. Highlights, resources and more information can be found at

“The Web site gives frustrated apparel consumers a forum to share their fabric fails and acts as a resource on how to avoid these disappointments,” said Ric Hendee, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Cotton Incorporated.  “With every site visit, posting and photo upload, apparel shoppers amplify the cotton or nothing message to brands.”

Cotton Incorporated is also promoting a campaign urging consumers to check product labels to make sure that their expectations for cotton in apparel are being met.

Kitchings said retail and brand companies have been very receptive to Cotton Incorporated’s research on fiber substitution. “In some key categories, we’re already seeing market share increase for cotton again, especially in mens wear and home textiles. Womens wear is generally not as high in cotton’s market share, due to some of the dressier apparels they wear, but we are starting to see it turn.”

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