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Cotton Set to Meet Challenges

With global economies still in recovery mode, consumers are minding their spending, making it challenging for more-expensive materials such as cotton.

HONG KONG — With global economies still in recovery mode, consumers are minding their spending, making it challenging for more-expensive materials such as cotton.

“When the economy is weak, we have to work hard to compete against cheaper fibers,” said J. Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer of Cotton Incorporated, the research and marketing company for U.S. cotton growers and cotton importers.

Cotton Inc. has been talking to mills and others about the advantages of cotton but “it’s still tough,” Worsham said. In the current environment, it’s important to come up with innovations, not only in the agricultural arena but in design, manufacturing and processing, as well, he added.

Cotton Inc. held a conference May 22 at the Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel here focusing on three areas — sustainability, new and improved manufacturing and processing techniques, and marketing.

Adam Kay, ceo of Cotton Australia, and Mark Lange, president and ceo of the National Cotton Council of America, discussed agricultural improvements such as reduction in pesticide use and water efficiency. Kay noted that Australian cotton growers have reduced pesticide use by 95 percent over the last two decades while improving water efficiency by 40 percent. Growers aim to make further strides in reducing carbon footprint and finding alternative uses for “trash” in the cotton gin and for cotton seeds.

Lange said American cotton growers have made similar strides and have invested $60 million annually in research and development.

Kay and Lange also discussed the Cotton Leads program, which highlights responsibly produced cotton in Australia and the U.S.

“The cotton industry needs to say what we’re doing,” Lange said. “Cotton Leads gives us that platform.”

Since its launch in October, the Cotton Leads program has signed on 179 partners, the majority of which are in Asia. Partners include manufacturers, textile mills, brands and retailers.

Just as Cotton Inc. has been telling American customers about the advantage of cotton over synthetics in the U.S. through its long-running “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign, the industry group has upped efforts to raise awareness of the advantages of U.S.- and Australian-grown cotton though the Cotton Leads program.

Among those partners is Winner Medical Group Inc., a Chinese manufacturer of medical dressing. Jianquan Li, chairman and ceo of Winner Medical Group, said he’s seen Chinese consumer demand for cotton products increase in the last few years, even though cotton is more expensive than synthetics.

Li’s comments are consistent with a survey conducted for Cotton Inc. that found 62 percent of Chinese consumers are willing to pay more to keep cotton in their clothing. Seventy-nine percent of survey respondents also said cotton and cotton blends are their favorite fibers.

Conference attendees included Chinese mills and manufacturers. The location of the conference in Hong Kong highlights the importance of China to the cotton industry. China holds the majority of the world’s cotton inventory and is also the world’s largest cotton grower, with about 30 percent of the global cotton crop, while the U.S. produces about 13 percent.

Despite its heavy cotton production, Chinese mills still need to import cotton and the country is also the world’s largest cotton importer, taking in more than 40 percent of global cotton exports.

Presenters at the technical conference on Thursday focused on sustainability. Presentations at the manufacturing panel introduced new dying and processing techniques that help reduce water usage. A student design competition highlighted the versatility and sustainability of cotton.