Several myths and fascinating scientific advances about cotton were explored at the “Everything You’ve Heard About Cotton is Wrong” breakfast conference held in New York last week.
Produced by Cotton Inc., the four-hour event featured presentations by experts from Cotton Inc. about the cotton market in China, advances in cotton-plant breeding, “alternative facts” about cotton and current statistics about how sustainability is perceived within the industry and by consumers.
Highlights of this portion of the event were as follows:
• Jon Devine, senior economist at Cotton Inc., predicted another year of economic growth for cotton and noted that with India’s current cotton crop down 40%, that the US would step up to the plate to supply China with the raw material. “We are not in normal times,” he said.
• Ryan Kurtz, director of agricultural and environmental research as Cotton Inc., explained how cross-pollination with various types of cotton plants and genetic engineering has allowed farmers in the last 35 years to grow 50% more cotton per acre but using 40% less water. He also explained how technology –everything from sensors that measure soil water volumes or surface temperatures of leaves to farmers using Twitter to stay abreast of news – has dramatically altered cotton cultivation.
• James Pruden, senior director of PR at Cotton Inc., provided accurate figures about cotton including that it accounts for 5% of global pesticide sales (not 25% as some say) and that it takes 1,100 gallons of water to grow the cotton used in a pair of jeans, and not 1,800 as is so often quoted.
• Melissa Bastos, director or market research, pointed out that a Cotton Inc. survey of 6,000 consumers showed that they want companies to raise sustainability initiatives but expect the industry to take care and self-regulate any problems in manufacturing such as safety and child labor.
These speeches were followed by a roundtable discussion moderated by Edward Hertzmann, publisher of Sourcing Journal, that featured a four-member panel of experts: Dr. Jesse Daystar, assistant director at the Duke Center for Sustainability and Commerce; Dr. Keerti Rathore, a professor in the department of Soil & Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University; Bryan Dill, head of global key accounts at dye company Archroma US Inc; and Garry Bell, vice president of corporate marketing and communications at Canadian sportswear manufacturer Gildan.
Dr. Daystar noted “sustainability is here to stay and is important and identifying it as an opportunity is important for brands and retailers.” However, he also said that the current environment which lacks consistent regulation and therefore makes it confusing for consumers. “There are lots of labels and claims so it’s really hard to sort through that as a consumer. Organic is not always better and it is important to put numbers behind the claims.”
Bell added that Gildan is an exception to the rule and derives 90% of its revenues in its own factories and said that with most supply chains being all over the world, they are hard to track, regulate and trust.
Dill then discussed how Archroma is developing plant-based dyes made from agricultural waste, including cotton itself. “You’re actually dyeing cotton with cotton,” he boasted.
Dr. Rathore then talked about the fascinating work he has done at Texas A&M using “gene silence therapy” to keep a naturally occurring toxin, gossypol, from growing inside cottonseeds. This technology is now being submitted to government regulation agencies and would allow protein to be derived from the seeds, potentially supplying 500-600 million people with a new source of nourishment. “My goal in life is to make cottonseed just as important as the fiber,” he said.
Wrapping things up, Hertzman made this conclusion: “The key is that the consumer wants sustainability without an increase in cost.”