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Why Is Cotton Always The Apparel Industry's Punching Bag?

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

Having worked in the cotton business for many years, one of the things I’ve noticed about various clothing brands when pressed about sustainable production is that they almost always blame cotton for a brand’s sustainability woes. Think about it. A brand gets accused of poor sustainability standards or green-washed marketing, and they often cite cotton as the root cause of their inadequacies. Why is this?

Well, I think there are several reasons. First, it’s easier (and safer) for a brand to blame an upstream supplier for sustainability problems than a downstream customer. Indeed, it’s hard to criticize one’s direct supply chain — that is, cut-and-sew, sales, distribution, and retail — without undermining a company’s brand. Put another way: why admit to shortcomings in a brand’s supply chain when it’s far easier to place the blame elsewhere.

Cotton grown in the field is a long way from sourcing offices in New York City. I doubt most designers in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, or Paris, have ever been in a cotton field – let alone met a cotton farmer. As a result, cotton is an abstract concept for many sourcing people and designers. Let’s face it: cotton is esoteric. But it needn’t be.

Moreover, whether cotton is sustainably produced or not is less important when viewed from the perspective of many sourcing executives. What matters most to many of these executives is whether cotton helps them to either tell a story or, perhaps, more importantly, to improve the fabric their suppliers manufacture for use in their garments.

Next, when it comes to raw materials, brands tend to focus on fabrics first, fibers second (if at all). Attention to fibers may focus on performance – “How does a fabric stretch?” But the messaging of how a fiber is grown (or made) can get lost when considering prices for many companies.

Further, many sourcing executives and designers are trained to understand fabrics, not fibers; fabric performance is far more critical to these people than how the fibers contained in the fabric function. If there’s a question about fibers, bring in the marketing people. They’ll figure out a story, but only after mills negotiate their best prices for their products.

The Impact of the Internet

And then there’s where a designer or sourcing person gains his or her information about cotton. Where do they look? Typically, it begins with the Internet. You’re familiar with the Internet: that marvel of technology, instant information filled with incredible inaccuracies, conspiracy theories, fake news, political innuendo, YouTube tirades, and so forth. Yeah, that Internet.

Google “cotton,” and you’ll learn all about how awful a crop it is for the environment and how it harms farmers around the world. So much of this information is empty marketing, self-serving propaganda, or information based on often flawed studies conducted back in the 1950s.

An Example: Falsehoods Presented as Facts

Recently, a post popped up on my LinkedIn feed that really irked me. It was written by a popular textile publication claiming the following supposed “fact” about cotton: “Do you know cotton is one of the most polluting fibers, and about 20% of the world’s production of fertilizers and pesticides ends up in the cotton fields?”

I found several problems with the post. First, there were no data provided to support the pesticide and fertilizer allegations, and there were no hyperlinks to anything, just the statement and a photo of a cotton boll. Next, there’s not a source provided for the allegations. It’s just more unsubstantiated claims about cotton. What’s troublesome, however, is that people believe this pap — and often fail to validate or dispel such claims.

I did some checking around, and as it turns out, the claim described above came from a long-debunked report from the 1990s. The cynic in me suggests that by making such undocumented statements about cotton, it must make it easy for the publication to sell advertising to some company or organization that has an anti-cotton agenda.

And herein lies the crux of the problem: it’s so much easier to search the Internet and be content with what results pop up on a search engine without ever digging deeper and checking with industry or academic experts. Lost too is contact with various cotton organizations that collect statistics measuring how cotton affects the environment, or how farmers hope to make a living growing lint — or not. What does survive, though, is hype and misinformation.

Understanding Cotton by Analyzing Data

Look, cotton farming isn’t easy. It’s a hard way of life for so many families around the world. But brands have an obligation — if they truly believe in sustainability and the welfare of farmers — to search out the facts. For industry publications, get your facts straight and don’t just reprint nonsense as click-bait.

There’s also a lack of commonly agreed-upon data to document how cotton is grown. My friend and colleague, Andrew Olah, recently published a terrific paper that explores this very problem in great detail. It’s well worth a read.

Indeed, cotton may be esoteric for some people, but it’s so essential for the products our industry sells to consumers around the world. More so, cotton is vital to farmers everywhere. Yet, cotton remains a punching bag for the textile, garment, and retail industries — at least when it comes to sustainability. I guess it’s easier to criticize something when it is poorly understood.

An Unfortunate Turn of Events

Which brings to me to the terrifying outbreak of the coronavirus. Besides being a human tragedy in China and elsewhere, such a calamity underscores the frailty of human systems — whether societal, cultural, or even in business. In the case of business, supply chains in our industry were already disrupted thanks to the trade war. Indeed, exports of clothing to the United States had suffered. But in turn, so had exports of U.S. cotton to China. Both countries hurt each other. Add in the coronavirus, and now we have the emotional impact and human tragedy of a deadly disease added into the mix.

Put bluntly: the impact of the disease has only added to the woes of Chinese manufacturers, American buyers, and exporters of U.S. cotton taking an already bad situation and making it worse. The trade has — at least temporarily — slowed despite the thaw in relations made possible by the Phase 1 tariff deal between the two countries.

Nevertheless, from a business perspective determining the facts surrounding the coronavirus outbreak is critical for sourcing executives everywhere to understand. And it’s hard to discern what’s fact and what’s hype after reviewing media reporting. That’s why I especially appreciated the factual approach taken by Rick Helfenbein, former CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, in a brilliant article recently published on just-style entitled, “What does the coronavirus mean for US apparel and retail?”

Mr. Helfenbein’s article wasn’t an op-ed piece as much as it was a listing of what we know about the virus and its impact on our industry’s supply chains. Nothing more, nothing less. No hyperbole. Just the facts. A superb presentation because Mr. Helfenbein states truths and resists commentary about what we don’t know.

We can all learn from his approach to a harsh and emotionally challenging subject. Honestly, our industry can learn a lot by following this approach concerning a wide range of topics by sticking with the facts, not innuendoes, or half-baked truths. It’s an approach I wish our industry would adopt as it struggles to understand cotton.

Note: This article was originally published on on February 14, 2020.


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