Cotton Incorporated

Everything You’ve Heard About Cotton is Wrong

On May 23, 2017 Cotton Incorporated and Sourcing Journal Online co-hosted a media and apparel industry event provocatively titled, “Everything You Know About Cotton Is Wrong.” The goal of the event, according to Kim Kitchings, Cotton Incorporated senior vice president of Consumer Marketing, was “to counter misperceptions about cotton—with facts.” The event entailed a series of presentations from Cotton Incorporated staff that included a primer on cotton commodity economics and an overview of how cotton-farming technologies have evolved over the past 35 years. A diverse panel on “Cotton in the 21st Centuryand Beyond” prompted a lengthy and intriguing discussion with the panelists and the audience.

“Cotton remains the preferred fiber among consumers,” explained Kitchings, “but there is a great deal of conflicting information about it, especially as it relates to cotton’s environmental impact.” The event addressed these conflicts head-on with “The Top Ten Alternative Facts About Cotton,” a presentation by Cotton Incorporated senior director of public relations James Pruden. Pruden addressed issues of water and pesticide use, providing citations for data presented and a conjecture as to how the facts have become distorted over time.

Alt Facts

For example, one alternative fact that was refuted was that cotton uses 25 percent of the world’s pesticides. Pruden pointed out that there is no organization that monitors pesticide applications around the world, which makes the statement dubious to begin with. There are, however, companies that measure sales of global pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture. One such source, Informa, reveals that in 2016 cotton accounted for five percent of pesticide sales. As Pruden explained, pesticide sales can be used as a broad proxy for application, but are more indicative of purchases than of volumes used.

The University of Mississippi does monitor insecticide applications on cotton grown in the United States. According to the university’s Cotton Crop Loss database, U.S. cotton growers applied insecticides on average of two times in the 2016 crop year.

Another alternative fact involved the depletion of the Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, the Aral Sea has retreated significantly in recent decades. Cotton’s detractors blame what they claim to be cotton’s “excessive water needs.” The actual cause, according to Pruden by way of a Columbia University study, was a poor engineering decision by the Soviet government, which controlled the region around the Aral Sea in the 60s. During that era, the Soviets decided to divert the two rivers feeding the Aral Sea to the surrounding desert. The idea was to transform the desert into farmland to grow, among other crops, cotton. Over time, the myth arose that cotton crops require large amounts of water. To put it in perspective, Pruden stated, “It takes more water to grow an acre of lawn grass than an acre of cotton,” that calculus coming from data in “The Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber and Fabric” (2010).

The emphasis on citations at first glance may appear excessive, but Pruden explains that it is purposeful. “Virtually all communications coming out of Cotton Incorporated undergo several layers of vetting, including a review by the United States Department of Agriculture. We are the global knowledge base for cotton. This level of vetting ensures that the information we are providing the media and the industry is accurate and represents the best and most current data known to us.”

Sustainable Future

So why is there so much misinformation about cotton and why does it persist? Pruden replied, “Competition and time. Consumers know and love cotton. As a textile fiber it is the one to beat. Competitive fiber companies—and even some passionate, but mis- or under-informed NGOs—thrive on the fact that people are busy and don’t have the time or the inclination to peel back the layers of the claims they read on a label or a website.”

This too is supported by research. Melissa Bastos, director of market research at Cotton Incorporated, shared in her “The Business of Sustainability” presentation that consumers care about sustainability, but rely on manufacturers and brands to build that into the final product. “According to responses to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ survey, less than one-third of consumers say they put effort into finding sustainable apparel,” said Bastos, adding, “and this is consistent across generations.”

Bastos’s presentation showed comparable findings for the industry. According to a recent poll of textile companies, fewer than one-quarter of respondents say their company verified facts presented to them through media, or by suppliers or NGOs. Interestingly, the same poll indicates that 92 percent of respondents believe sustainability to be a cultural movement that is here to stay.

Reactions to the research occurred in a panel discussion that included Dr. Jesse Daystar, associate director of the Duke Center for Sustainability and Commerce; Garry Bell, vice president of corporate marketing and communications for the Canadian apparel brand Gildan; Bryan Dill, head of key accounts at Archroma US; and Dr. Keerti Rathore, professor of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University.

Bell stated, “Consumers are looking for credibility from the brands. Consumers are looking for brands that are transparent and put the information out there.” To facilitate this, Gildan has developed an app through which shoppers can track a T-shirt throughout its lifecycle. Dill pointed to the traceability hangtag accompanying garments dyed with Archroma’s Earth Colors dyes, which allows consumers a similar level of transparency.

Dr. Daystar summed up the discussion by saying, “Sustainability is here to stay and it is important for brands and retailers. There are lots of labels and claims, so it’s really hard to sort through all that as a consumer. Organic is not always better and it is important to put numbers behind the claims.”

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