More than 50 women with various backgrounds converged on Raleigh, NC, June 24, to learn more about cotton. But these weren’t just “any” women, they are farmers, landowners, ginners, gin secretaries, marketers, seed saleswomen, scientists, crop insurance agents, writers and farmwives, all with the common thread of agriculture tying them together.
The tour kicked off with dinner and introductions, followed by a crash course about Cotton Incorporated the next morning — an organization that conducts an average of 500 research projects annually to keep cotton a competitive commodity.
Cotton Incorporated representatives told the crowd, cotton isn’t competing against cotton. Rather, cotton’s greatest competitor is synthetics, a duel Cotton Incorporated is working to win through research, development and marketing.
First to address the primarily female crowd, was Kim Kitchings, senior vice president of Consumer Marketing at Cotton Incorporated, who says while the organization has been promoting cotton for 40 years, it’s talking louder about how they are doing things. For example, Kitchings says while they have seen a 50 percent reduction in pesticide application in cotton production and an 80 percent increase in watering efficiency, they’ve also witnessed a 35 percent increase in retailers asking for cotton. “Consumers have a love affair with cotton,” she says.
Apparel popular among women and men is performance wear, an area growing at two times the rate of all other apparel. “The cotton share is not as high as we’d like it to be, which presents significant opportunities,” Kitchings says. “To compete, we need cotton products to do less wrinkling and moisture transfer, be less abrasive and more water repellant, have odor resistance and color retention.” All traits researchers are working on, she says.
Kitchings also discussed the differences between manmade fibers, such as polyester, and the natural fiber in cotton and their impact on the environment. “In 250 days, cotton biodegrades 76 percent, while polyester only 4 percent.
“Cotton keeps making strides toward a sustainable fashion future. You care about what you put in your body, but what about what you put on your body?”
The female agriculturists were also introduced to Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green program. “We recycle denim into insulation and distribute a portion of it to Habitat for Humanity and other similar organizations,” says Kitchings. “We’ve kept 2 million pairs of jeans out of the landfill while creating 4 million square feet of insulation.”
Dr. Ryan Kurtz, a Cotton Incorporated entomologist who grew up on a cotton farm in Mississippi, introduced the Cotton Cultivated website to tour guests, who had flown in from as far as Washington state, Texas and New York City. The cotton website is where growers can find “all things cotton,” including results to Cotton Inc. research. (I will include the link to website.)
“The website has a continuous newsfeed, weather, videos, webcast, things that we fund, and twitter feed,” says Kurtz. “There is a resource directory and filters, which allow users to filter by region or topic.”
Cotton vs. synthetics
Vikki Martin, vice president of fiber competition at Cotton Incorporated, discussed the challenges of marketing a natural fiber versus a man-made product, all areas Cotton Inc. is working to resolve. “To understand what we need to improve, we need to understand what we are competing against, which is fine, thin fibers,” says Martin. “To do that you’ve got to have fine fibers, fibers the same length, which is easy for synthetics to generate because all fibers are the same length, but with cotton, we are still going to have a range of length distribution, which is harder for mills.”
U.S. cotton producers also face contamination challenges. “All global cotton is seeing increased complaints of contamination,” explains Martin, from plastics such as grocery sacks to module wrap. “The U.S. has the best reputation for clean cotton but complaints are increasing. It is critical we move rapidly, and we do not harm U.S. cotton’s reputation because of plastic contamination.”
Dr. Mike Shen, vice president and managing director, highlighted product development and implementation. In 2017, Cotton Incorporated developed 146 new fabrics. “We have specs and samples, so when retailers want to use them, we give them the specs so they can easily duplicate them.”
One of the technologies developed by Cotton Incorporated researchers and adopted by Eddie Bauer, is the patented TransDRY™ technology, treated yarn knitted together with untreated yarn which draws moisture away from the body to keep the wearer dry and cool. “It helps us to compete with synthetic fibers,” says Shen. “We are trying to inspire brands and retailers to use more cotton.”
Mark Messura, senior vice president of global supply chain marketing for Cotton Incorporated, displayed two photos of pencils, side-by-side. One photo, pictured new, perfectly aligned pencils that were also the same length. The other photo displayed pencils in varying heights and sizes, to which he posed the question, “If you were in charge of purchasing pencils for your business, which ones would you choose?”
The crowd responded, “A,” the photo with the new, aligned pencils. “This is our challenge in the cotton industry,” says Messura, who points out that cotton, because it is natural, is like the second photo, varying in size, color and quality.
“The best suppliers still throw away 3 percent of a bale, but they pay for whole bale,” he says. “Polyester prices stay constant; cotton’s price is constantly changing. Our competition can engineer fiber quality, whereas cotton is a natural fiber.
“Our goal is to make sure companies are choosing cotton above anything else, so we are working with mills and manufacturers to market cotton to decision makers.”
Messura thanked the crowd for the job they do on the farm, “Because it makes my job easier marketing our cotton.”
Fit, comfort & sustainability
Melissa Bastos, director of market research, focuses on understanding consumer’s behaviors. While seven out of 10 consumers prefer to purchase their clothing in a store, fit and comfort are the primary drivers to purchase clothing, a preference Cotton Incorporated is working to relay back to cotton through its advertising, says Bastos.
Research also seeks to know where to put the “fit and comfort” message, whether it be on television or online. Cotton Incorporated’s current campaign, “Life is Uncomfortable,” highlights cotton’s ease of care, comfort and that it’s natural.
Within comparative marketing, cotton versus synthetics, Bastos says cotton continues to make strides toward a sustainable fashion future. “Cotton can be a part of your life: food, fiber and shelter,” she says. “When you talk about sustainability let’s talk about a fiber that’s been around for thousands of years and all that it can do — that’s sustainability.”
Research shows that millennials spend eight hours a day on the internet, two-and-a-half of those hours on social media. “This is why we have to be on all these different formats. We have to constantly be updating this content, keeping it new and fresh.”
The Women in Cotton tour concluded their day at the Cotton Incorporated headquarters touring the facilities and laboratories, seeing first-hand where the research, representatives had discussed throughout the morning session, takes place.