Innovation in sustainable cotton products is key for apparel firms to remain competitive in the global supply chain.
Faced with a business environment beset by near-term pressures on cotton prices, environmental issues, and “razor thin” margins, companies must adopt emerging technologies that differentiate their products in the market.
Innovation and the current world market for cotton stood out during presentations at the 21st annual EFS® System Conference, “Sustaining Cotton’s Competitiveness,” hosted by Cotton Incorporated on June 10 and 11. Held at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, the conference drew more than 218 attendees, including 26 mills, 28 merchants/co-ops, and 8 manufacturers, from 19 countries.
EFS (Engineered Fiber Selection®) is Cotton Incorporated’s cost-effective software system for managing U.S. cotton inventory to meet yarn requirements of American mills and manufacturers. EFS is an industry standard used by more than 95 percent of American cotton spinning mills, and a large number of mills overseas, particularly mills in China, which are Cotton Incorporated’s latest clients for its EFS system.
Mark Messura, Executive Vice-President, Global Supply Chain, started the conference off with a presentation that told of a strong outlook for cotton fiber. “We’re in an up cycle in prices, even though there has been some market cooling since March. There is fundamental strength in cotton fiber prices,” he said.
On imports, Messura noted that with razor-thin margins and easy profits disappearing, there has been a redistribution of manufacturing to lower-cost countries, particularly Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam.
At retail, while discounters are doing well, national chains’ sales are off, Messura said, and specialty chains are in decline; retail’s weak showing prevented fiber price increases from being passed along.
Dr. Gary Adams, Vice-President, Economics & Policy Analysis for the National Cotton Council, stressed that the demand for cotton near-term will be slower but stable, based on oil prices dragging the economy downward. He also noted that import safeguards on apparel from China will expire at the end of 2008 for 34 categories, or one-third of the imports overall; China accounts for 13 percent of all imports into the U.S.
David Earley, Director, Supply Chain Marketing, told the group, “Innovation is at the core of what we do at Cotton Incorporated,” naming Innova International, Huntsman International, and Clariant Corp. as firms that have adopted new technologies for sustainable manufacturing from Cotton Incorporated research.
He focused on three fabric innovations that have found their way into the market: Wicking Windows™, the moisture management system that improves absorbent capacity while reducing the drying time of cotton knits; Stay True Cotton™ technology, which locks-in the original indigo color in denim; and Storm Denim™, which imparts water-resistance while allowing water vapor to pass through the fabric.
New York designer Alexander Wang has applied this technology to his premium jeans being introduced at high-end retailers this fall. Canadian MWG Apparel is also applying Storm Denim to a line of premium denim jeans being sold by Mark’s Work Wearhouse, one of that country’s largest retailers.
Mary Ankeny, Director of Dyeing Research for Cotton Incorporated, discussed further advances in sustainable finishing from the firm. These include: Rapid exhaust bleaching cycles that increase productivity and use less water and energy; Continuous bleaching that combines scouring and desizing and uses less water and energy; Ozone being used to reduce chemicals in wash-down and to decolorize water and not put dye chemicals into the municipal waste stream; Foam being applied to fabrics to transfer dyes, using less water, chemicals, and energy.
Edward Barnes, Director of Agricultural Research at Cotton Incorporated, countered what he called “outrageous claims” made against cotton about the fiber’s effect on the environment.
“We’re growing more cotton using fewer natural resources,” Barnes noted. “We have increased production efficiency and improvements in yield and cotton varieties. Per pounds of cotton yield per acre, soil loss is declining, due to reduced tillage. Higher-yield varieties use less of our water resources, and land use is down, so cotton is not taking up habitat. Cotton’s fuel use is down and cotton’s energy balance is very positive, particularly with cottonseed production.
To set the record straight against claims by those who inaccurately criticize cotton without supplying data, Barnes noted two key facts: American cotton meets half the world’s demand while using only 3 percent of the crop land, not 3 percent of the earth’s total land, and cotton uses only 8 percent of all pesticides used globally, not 25 percent as had been stated erroneously. In addition, newly developed insect-resistant varieties need much less of the active ingredient in pesticides, and are selective in which insects are eliminated.
Allen Terhaar, Executive Director of Cotton Council International, reminded the conference about environmental concerns of the consumer. “It’s an issue that’s on consumers’ minds and in the press. Cotton has a very good image, but cotton’s message still needs to be out there: it’s renewable, natural, and sustainable.”
Cotton Incorporated, funded by U.S. growers of upland cotton and importers of cotton and cotton textile products, is the research and marketing company representing upland cotton. The firm’s programs are designed and operated to improve the demand for and profitability of cotton.
To download photographs of speakers at the 2008 EFS® System Conference, click on the appropriate links below.