LOOKING AT COTTON INC.’S ROOTS
NEW YORK — It was a long road from the day that a group of American cotton farmers realized that synthetic fibers were giving them a run for their money to Thanksgiving Day 1989, when the “Fabric of Our Lives” ads first appeared during TV broadcasts of the Macy’s parade.
That history and more is chronicled in a book commissioned by Cotton Incorporated, which is due to be released Nov. 1.
Called “Cotton’s Renaissance: A Study in Market Innovation,” and written by Timothy Curtis Jacobson and George David Smith of The Winthrop Group, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting company, the book details the history of the U.S. cotton industry and the role that the fibers-promotion group played in it.
In interviews, the authors said that what struck them most about the development of Cotton Inc., today based in Cary, N.C., is the odds that had to be overcome for it to be formed.
“The biggest surprise for me is how it was possible to structure cooperative marketing arrangements in an industry that is so highly fragmented and make it effective,” said Smith, who also serves as a clinical professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
The book lays out the difficult market circumstances cotton farmers faced in the Sixties, which provided them with the impetus to start thinking about trade promotion.
“When cotton’s markets were fast eroding under the assault of new synthetic fibers, a few alert growers knew that something had to change,” the preface states.
“Against considerable skepticism and some outright opposition from their peers and government officials, they created a new organization to help them do it.”
The book also details the decision of cotton farmers to look outside the cotton industry for the first president of the Cotton Producers Institute. Dukes Wooters, who renamed the organization Cotton Inc., had been an advertising salesman at Reader’s Digest.
Before the job offer, his primary experience with cotton was limited to trips to Brooks Bros.
“Twice a year, he bought his shirts [on sale] at that bastion of male traditionalism on the corner of 44th Street and Madison Avenue; needless to say, the shirts were all-cotton,” the authors wrote.
Before he traveled to Memphis, where the organization was based, for a round of interviews, Wooters decided to learn a little about other shopping options Americans faced.
“What he discovered at Macy’s, where most people shopped, was that he would have a hard time indulging such an old-fashioned taste in fabrics,” the passage continues, quoting Wooters. “‘I looked around,’ he said, ‘and there was hardly any cotton.”‘
“Cotton’s Renaissance” also offers details on the modern cotton-farming industry and its focus on technology. Jacobson said he spent much of the two years he researched the book traveling.
“I did a lot of fieldwork. In this case, literally in fields. I visited cotton growers all over the cotton belt,” he said. “I was impressed by the sophisticated nature of the operations. These are farmers who are very computer literate, sophisticated businessmen in every sense.”
The book details Cotton Inc.’s focus on research and technology.
“Mill owners were adamant that their customers were demanding the fiber performance that only blends could provide and mills wanted all the help they could get in fashioning the best blends to meet demand,” the authors wrote.
Cotton Inc.’s research laboratories changed that, according to the book.
J. Berrye Worsham, the current president and chief executive officer of Cotton Inc., explained that the promotions company decided to pursue this project because: “Our board members, particularly the ones who had been around for quite some time, decided that we had a history worth preserving and a lot of the people who were part of it might not be around 10 years from now.
“It’s always good, particularly for new employees, to understand what the company was all about, the reason for the company’s creation and that the successes we’ve had today can’t be taken for granted. The current tough time for cotton is not new. If you read the book, you see that cotton has had its ups and downs for several hundred years.”
The book is being released by Cambridge University Press, which has produced 4,000 copies to be sold through book retailers.