Cotton plant

NEW YORK — The apparel industry and its customers are proponents of sustainability — but only if it’s economically feasible.

That was a key takeaway from a survey conducted by Cotton Incorporated and presented at a half-day seminar here Tuesday titled “Everything You’ve Heard About Cotton Is Wrong.”

Melissa Bastos, director of market research for Cotton Incorporated, said although the concept is appealing, sustainability is “not a primary purchase-driver for consumers.” Instead, they primarily seek a good fit, comfort and a price they consider reasonable, good quality, durability and the right style. The secondary reasons for purchasing are color, softness, performance features and laundering instructions. Further down on the list are country of origin, sustainability and brand name, she said.

And while all generations care about the environmental impact of their purchases — not just the socially conscious Millennials — this still does not drive them to the cash register. In fact, some 33 to 40 percent of consumers today expect manufacturers to produce goods that are environmentally friendly and blame the vendor if those rules are broken.

So what is the apparel industry doing to comply with these requirements?

Bastos said Cotton Incorporated surveyed 100 companies, a mix of manufacturers and retailers, and 55 percent said they define sustainability as manufacturing environmentally friendly product, 55 percent believe it involves the use of responsible ingredients and 54 percent think it means balancing profit with environmental concerns.

Some 57 percent said sustainability is part of their corporate culture and 56 percent have added this into their strategic plans. Another 66 percent said they have integrated this initiative into their products and half are using marketing and promotion to highlight their efforts.

Whether they have yet jumped on board, Bastos said 92 percent of respondents believe sustainability is a cultural movement that is here to stay. As a result, 80 percent said it’s important to have transparency with the end consumer and 56 percent believe shoppers will pay more for socially conscious product.

However, the respondents said while they want to increase their sustainability efforts, 45 percent said limited resources are preventing them from increasing their efforts.

“Businesses believe sustainability is important, but they must balance it with profits,” she said.

The seminar also addressed the issues faced by the cotton industry, everything from pesticides to “provocative headlines” such as the one used in national parks in the U.S. that says: “Cotton kills.” Or the one evoked by Under Armour, which says, “Cotton is the enemy.”

James Pruden, senior director of public relations for Cotton Incorporated, said cotton has gotten the reputation that it’s dangerous when it gets wet, and synthetic wicking fibers are better for athletic endeavors such as hiking or football. But the industry has addressed those issues by developing Storm Cotton, a breathable, water-repellent finish for the fiber that is now being used in a variety of products, from jeans to fleece jackets.

In a panel discussion that ended the seminar, a group that included scientists, dyeing experts and an apparel manufacturer addressed other issues facing the cotton community.

Dr. Jesse Daystar, assistant director at the Duke University Center for Sustainability and Commerce, said sustainability is viewed by companies as an “opportunity” more than as a costly investment.

Garry Bell, vice president of corporate marketing and communications at Gildan, said as the cotton growing and harvesting process is improved, there is less waste so being sustainable doesn’t actually cost extra.

Daystar also cautioned that labeling — organic, all-natural — is confusing to consumers and the processes that lead to those certifications are not always better. In fact, growing organic cotton actually leads to more water use, not less.

He said companies such as REI have had concerns about the impact of dyes, so work is being done to improve that process.

Bryan Dill, head of global key accounts for Archroma U.S. Inc., a chemical technology firm that specializes in dyeing, said the industry is using dyes made from natural products such as olive pits and rosemary and is even using the waste from cotton processing in some cases. “So we’re actually dyeing cotton with cotton,” he said.

Dr. Keerti Rathore, professor in the department of soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M, said there are also a number of techniques in development that can modify cotton plants in a less-invasive way. And research is being done on how to make the cotton seed, which is filled with protein but currently toxic to consume, “as valuable as the fiber.” He believes that with further development, this is an achievable goal.

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