As the 2017 cotton planting season nears, there are a “lot of reasons to be optimistic,” says Kim Kitchings, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Cotton Incorporated.
Speaking at the recent 60th annual meeting of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., at Lubbock, she said cotton has seen “a significant market improvement,” and stabilized cotton prices are making the crop more competitive. Cotton is also regaining market share that was lost when prices soared.
“We’re looking at increased acreage — a sustainable product, which 30 percent of consumers say they want — and increased demand from the textile industry, which is getting requests for cotton-rich fabrics. Consumer demand for cotton around the world is good; consumers still love cotton.”
But the industry and Cotton Incorporated have work to do, she says, including making inroads into synthetic markets. Active wear and “athleisure” markets are significant retail segments, she notes, and “we’re looking at seed modification research to improve fiber length in order to make cotton more competitive with synthetics. That’s’ a 5-year to 10-year endeavor, and we’re just starting it.”
Making cotton more competitive will require “performance enhancements, such as improved moisture wicking, water repellent capabilities, thermal regulation, and developing ‘smart fabrics.’ Cotton owns the athleisure market — and we intend to maintain it.”
Sustainability has become an important concern for many consumers, Kitchings says. “Sustainability is part of our DNA at Cotton Incorporated. We’re working across the industry to reduce inputs. Cottonseed research, for instance, is integral to everything we do.” Those agronomic efforts are aimed at making cotton production more efficient and more sustainable. Cotton easily fits the description of “natural,” she says.
REDUCTION OF INPUTS
Cotton Incorporated researchers are also working to reduce inputs across the textile industry. “We’re looking at more sustainable finishes,” she says. “We want to find replacements for chemicals like formaldehyde. But we have to find replacements that are as effective and economical, but are also environmentally friendly.”
The Blue Jeans Go Green campaign, now in its 10th year, is demonstrating the industry’s commitment to sustainability, Kitchings says. “In 10 years, we have collected denim and recycled it into insulation for homes, keeping more than 750 tons of used denim out of landfills. We collect and recycle more than 1,000 denim items each month.”
Working with retailers to collect used denim encourages consumers to recycle old jeans and other denim products. The program also brings customers into stores. “They bring in old products, and while there, they often buy new ones,” Kitchings says. “Retailers may offer incentives, such as discounts,” for consumers who bring in old fabrics to recycle.
Yoga pants, workout, and leisure wear produced primarily from synthetic fibers has become a significant competitor for cotton, she notes. But those fabrics come with issues. “Are the micro-fibers in the synthetic fabric polluting water?” When the garments are washed, the micro-fibers are released and get into the ecosystem, potentially threatening water quality and wildlife. A recent report from The Weather Channel exposed the potential for environmental damage from yoga pants, and concluded “the best bet is cotton.”
Cotton Incorporated will evaluate the micro-fiber issue, including the life cycle of cotton fibers. “We want to know the fate of cotton fibers, too,” she said.
CI is also evaluating marketing opportunities, using systems such as Engineered Fiber Selection (EFS) to help mills make better purchasing decisions — determining when and where cotton will be needed, among other logistical concerns.
Social media offers opportunities to reach new customers, Kitchings says. “Social media are important to everything we do.” Cotton care tips, such as stain removal, offered through tweets, blogs, and other online outlets, helps to keep cotton current. A series of short videos — up to 12 seconds — also remind social media viewers about the advantages of cotton, including comfort and sustainability.
Cotton Incorporated provides an in-depth message to a diverse audience that includes consumers, organizations, and industry partners, she says. In addition to social media, the organization also targets trade media — more than 2,500 pieces of information were disseminated last year. Women make up 70 percent of the target audience, men 30 percent. “We are now leveraging digital media more than ever,” she says.
Cotton Incorporated also rebuts false claims about cotton. The frequency of use and potential risks of pesticides are often exaggerated, Kitchings says. “In fact, farmers averaged less than two insecticide applications a year in 2016. We’re reactive, as well as responding proactively to defend cotton.”