Larry Hubbard and Jon Jones and other producers at Cotton Incorporated in March 2017
Larry Hubbard, blue shirt, manager of fiber processing at Cotton Incorporated, describes part of the spinning process at CI's laboratory in Cary, N.C. Jon Jones, producer from Floydada, Texas, assists.

Making cotton great again goal of ‘the company’

Cotton Incorporated turning the corner in its fight to regain cotton's leadership role in textile manufacturing.

It’s been a struggle, but the folks at Cotton Incorporated believe they are beginning to turn the corner in their fight to regain some of the market share the industry lost when cotton prices rose to $2 a pound in 2010.

“It’s always a tough challenge for cotton in the market,” says Mark Messura, senior vice president for global supply chain marketing at Cotton Incorporated. “Cotton competes primarily with synthetic fibers, and, for the past several years, cotton has been much more expensive than those fibers.

“We are seeing a turn in the market, though, as cotton prices are more competitive with synthetic fibers, primarily polyester. We’ve seen a return in interest by retailers, brands, manufacturers in looking at cotton.”

The issue is more than just price, says Messura, who spoke during a multi-region cotton producer tour at CI’s headquarters in Cary, N.C. Following his presentation, he was interviewed by Delta Farm Press.

“We have to have technologies; we have to have other kinds of things that we can show to make sure that retailers and brands, in particular, understand that they can offer great cotton products in the kinds of styles and performance features that they can with other fibers – we can do that in cotton. So we are seeing a resurgence of interest in cotton.”

Déjà vu all over again

It’s not that the cotton industry hasn’t been here before. Cotton spinners were losing market share to supposedly more “modern” synthetic fibers when Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion organization funded by producers and importers, was formed in 1970.

The company, as its employees refer to Cotton Incorporated, began waging a major war to win the hearts and minds of consumers. In the years that followed, CI’s researchers and marketing experts helped cotton gain a better than 60 percent market share with their trademark Seal of Cotton and advertising slogans such as the Fabric of our Lives.

A series of events that took the cotton industry by surprise in 2010 pushed cotton prices to levels not seen since the Civil War. Although few producers received that price, cotton actually traded for $2 a pound for a while due to China’s attempt to not get caught short of the fiber again.

“Brands and retailers didn’t know when the price of cotton went to $2 if it was going to $3,” said Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated. “There was just so much uncertainty in the market, and that changed everything.”

As an example, Worsham noted that cotton accounted for more than 60 percent of the market in women’s apparel in the first quarter of 2011. Today cotton accounts for about 40 percent of that market segment.

Share has flattened out

“The good news is that for the last six or seven or eight quarters we’ve kind of flattened out a little bit,” he said in his presentation for the Producer Tour. “Hopefully, we can reach a bottom there and begin to rise.”

Women’s apparel accounts for about 60 percent of the clothing market while men’s apparel makes up around 30 percent. “We didn’t lose quite as much market share in men’s apparel, and we’ve actually seen a bit of an increase in that area in the last four or five quarters,” he noted.

“It’s been a difficult market these last few years, but at least we’re seeing signs that things are picking up, and I think there are more signs of optimism today than there’s been in several years, and we intend to continue to build on that.”

The cotton industry is trying to sell into a consumer market that is much more demanding than it was just a few years ago. This time the fight is complicated by new trends in products such as active wear and terms like sustainability.

“When you go shopping today you’ll see that with just about every garment, they try to tell you a story,” said Worsham. “It has some kind of feature. It repels or wicks away moisture; it doesn’t wrinkle as much or it doesn’t fade as much. Every brand or retailer is trying to find a product that will tell a story.”

Performance matters

As a result performance has become a major theme in the apparel market. One of the areas Cotton Incorporated has been working in is how can cotton compete with synthetics in the performance market.

“We’ve had a major initiative in the last couple of years in the active wear sector where you see many of these performance features,” Worsham said. “But it’s not just the active wear, it’s basically all markets, and we’re trying to make sure cotton can compete as best we can at a price we can afford with technologies in this market.”

As part of the initiative, Cotton Incorporated has developed a number of new technologies such as Storm Cotton, a waterproofing technology; TransDry, a moisture transfer technology; Wicking Windows, another moisture transfer feature; and Tough Cotton, which is an abrasion resistance technology.

In many cases, retailers and brands adopt the technology and give it their own name. “We don’t care what they call it,” says Worsham. “The main thing is we get it into the marketplace.”

It’s all part of the process of making sure that cotton is “top of mind” for every step in the supply chain, says Kim Kitchings, senior vice president for consumer marketing at Cotton Incorporated and a speaker during the Producer Tour.

Research is critical

Knowing the right approach to accomplish that takes research across all segments of the supply, and that’s what the Consumer Marketing Division at Cotton Incorporated is trying to do at a time the cotton industry has been struggling to regain markets from cheaper synthetic fibers.

The environmental profile of cotton also matters to groups like millennials, the term generally used to refer to young people born in the 1980s and 1990s. That makes topics such as sustainability and environmental footprints more important to marketing specialists at CI.

It has also changed the way Cotton Incorporated is delivering the message about the touch and feel of cotton, leading to a much greater emphasis on social media messaging and less reliance on traditional print and radio and TV advertising, according to Kitchings.

For more on what Cotton Incorporated is learning about global attitudes and behaviors, visit http://LifestyleMonitor.CottonInc.com

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