From the Cotton Gin to Field Robots and Mobile Fashion Shows, Cotton Keeps Current
Today, technology is advancing more rapidly than at any time in history. We see examples of this every day, literally in the palms of our hands: in mobile devices and their accompanying apps. Our perception of technology is largely personal, our frame of reference based upon how devices and software connect us to friends and family, entertain us, and improve our professional productivity. What may be less apparent to the average consumer is how technology, writ large, is keeping a centuries-old textile fiber like cotton relevant to the 21st century world. For an old textile fiber, cotton is quite high tech.
The modern history of cotton’s technological innovation begins in the late 18th century. At this time, the U.S. cotton industry faced a problem: demand for cotton fiber was high, but the ability to meet this demand was hampered by the time-consuming and laborious task of separating the fiber from the seeds. One person could process roughly one lone pound of cotton per day. Enter Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. The device enabled two people to process 50 pounds of cotton per day.
Flashing forward to the present day, at a recent gathering of cotton growers an octogenarian cotton farmer remarked that in his lifetime he had witnessed the transition from horse-drawn plows to diesel tractors, and now, the use of airborne drones in the production of cotton. His observation encapsulates the great technological advances that continue to characterize the modern cotton industry.
Current television commercials illustrate that U.S. farmers are being supported by substantial tech partners. Commercials by AT&T and IBM speak to the ways the companies’ products are helping farmers do their jobs more efficiently. Using a combination of ground sensors, GPS and software, cotton farmers are able to apply more precisely plant nutrients, pest controls and water where, when and in what specific amounts are required. As recently as 30 years ago, these growers would have had to irrigate entire fields or make blanket applications of pesticides. Technologies such as these reduce costs, of course, but there are also the potential impacts of these diminished inputs on the environment.
Another cost-saving and sustainability-minded development on the cotton horizon is the field robot. Dr. Ed Barnes at Cotton Incorporated is currently researching the viability of autonomous robots that would patrol the rows between planted cotton and perform a range of duties such as severing weeds and harvesting mature fiber. According to Barnes, the declining costs and accessibility of robotic and solar technologies could make these cotton bots an affordable reality in ten years or less. The use of solar power would help further diminish greenhouse gas emissions associated with existing machine use in cotton production.
The use of genetic technology in cotton is not new, but new advances are reshaping the approach. Historically, transgenic cotton varieties, more commonly known as genetically modified cotton varieties, have been planted in the United States since the late 90s. Simply put, genetic material is inserted into the plant to produce a beneficial trait. The most prevalent example is Bt cotton which, according to the USDA, represents 85 percent of the U.S. crop. Within the plant, the naturally occurring Bt protein is toxic to a narrow range of insects attracted to cotton as a food source. Its use has enabled U.S. growers to reduce significantly their pesticide applications. According to the Mississippi State University Cotton Crop Loss database, U.S. growers applied insecticides an average of 1.96 times in 2015, less than twice per growing season. Incidentally, Bt is also applied topically to organic cotton to control the same pests.
In more recent years, advances in gene technologies are evolving the approach to improving cotton varieties, and will help speed to market new varieties with enhanced resistance to pests, heat and drought. Key to these breakthroughs is the mapping of the cotton genome, completed in 2015, and gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR. Cotton breeders estimate that these advances will cut the development time in half for both organic and transgenic varieties.
The relationship between cotton and technology expands beyond the field. Innovations in textile technologies continue to stretch the boundaries of what cotton can do: specifically, how it performs. Synthetics have typically dominated the athletic and outdoor apparel categories because they can wick moisture away from the body and because they can prevent the absorption of external water such as rain. Over the past decade, however, because of advances in textile chemistries such as the TransDRY® technology (moisture management/wicking) and STORM COTTON® technologies (water-repellency), cotton is making inroads into these categories. What is more, these innovations are enabling cotton apparel to perform as well, and in some cases, better, than their synthetic counterparts.
A recent promotion between Cotton Incorporated and Bloomingdale’s brings the cotton technology wheel full circle—to those handheld devices we cannot live without. Cotton’s 60-second Fashion Show is a one-minute, fully shoppable video of cotton-rich looks available from Bloomingdale’s. The video, designed for desktop and mobile viewing, features hotspots to allow viewers to learn more about the featured designs and to put items for purchase directly into a bloomingdales.com shopping cart, bringing cotton apparel from the catwalk to consumer closets in one click.
The short, shoppable video and the fashions it presents were chosen to appeal to both Generation Z and the mobile-minded millennials. According to responses to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ survey, seven in ten Generation Z consumers and eight in ten millennials say they browse for clothing on their smartphones. This is significantly higher than that of consumers overall (58 percent). For those preferring to make their purchases in a brick-and-mortar store, Bloomingdale’s will offer an expanded version of the fashion show looks in-store.
Chuck Jones, the famed Warner Brothers animator, once said, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” He could easily have been speaking about the cotton industry. When faced with anxiety-producing challenges, such as how to meet 18th century demand for cotton, how to minimize environmental impact, or generate awareness of cotton to the next generation of consumers, cotton responds with creativity and tangible innovation.