Much ink has been spilled on the recent fluctuations in cotton’s price and the economic reverberations for the retail and apparel industries. However, few fully appreciate how serious the vacillations have been or how the roller coaster ride began with historically atypical price jumps during the 2010/2011 crop year.
According to Jon Devine, Senior Economist at Cotton Incorporated, a research and marketing company devoted to cotton, “The spike in raw cotton fiber prices in 2010/2011 was unprecedented. Many brands and manufacturers turned to blending cotton with alternative fibers to protect their margins. As a result, cotton’s market share went from 62.5% in 2009, to 56.3% in 2012,” he said.
The grand movement toward cutting costs by blending fibers put both the cotton industry, and apparel consumers, in a peculiar predicament: were shoppers buying products they believed were 100 percent cotton but were actually not? Were they bearing the same prices for clothing of diminished value?
Especially given its emphasis on supply chain transparency, Cotton Incorporated found itself uniquely well-positioned to lead the industry’s collective response. Eager to assess the scope of the problem, the company immediately turned to the consumer, soliciting their input in order to chart a plan of action moving forward.
“The first thing we wanted to do was see if the consumers noticed the substitutions; they did, and they were not happy,” said Kim Kitchings, Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics. In order to fully understand the depth of consumer discontent, it then had to innovate a new strategy appropriate for an unprecedented problem.
Out of these efforts, the “Customer Comments Project” was borne, an initiative designed to mine customer sentiment as catalogued across retail comment sections all over the internet. Kitchings said, “We looked at more than 250,000 comments that customers had posted to 2,600 retailer and brand web sites. We focused on twenty-six key apparel items and found that consumers had issues with both the feel and the performance of garments that had historically contained high percentages of cotton.”
The results of this massive survey was clear evidence of widespread customer dissatisfaction. For example, a preponderance of women shoppers bemoaned the falloff in quality they could clearly discern in their denim products, historically a core category for cotton. Nearly one-third of the women represented on the survey criticized their recent denim purchases for stretch-recovery failures in garments that contain polyester, rayon or some combination of the two.
Kitchings correctly anticipated the grievances. “This didn’t surprise us too much,” she said. “We knew from our Lifestyle Monitor Survey that consumers expect jeans to be made of cotton. In fact, 98 percent of consumers surveyed say they would actually pay more to keep cotton in their jeans.”
However, all the information gathered still had to be transformed into an actionable plan. This ultimately lead to the launch of a second, partner campaign, “Cotton or Nothing,” a new marketing program specifically designed to address swelling consumer frustration with the substitution of synthetic materials for cotton. The initiative–a seamless assortment of print, social and digital marketing–features mannequins who have gone on strike rather than suffer the indignity of wearing non-cotton apparel. The fulcrum of the campaign is the cottonornothing.com website, which encourages disgruntled consumers to post their own “fabric fail” experiences and pick up tips on how to care for their clothing.
Ric Hendee, Senior Vice President of Consumer Marketing for Cotton Incorporated, said, “The cottonornothing.com web site gives frustrated apparel consumers a forum to share their fabric fails, and acts as a resource on how to avoid these disappointments. With every site visit, posting, and photo upload, apparel shoppers amplify the ‘cotton or nothing’ message to brands.”
Hendee added, “Today’s consumers are angry and we’re capitalizing on it.”
Glenn Sciachitano, Senior Director of Consumer Marketing, called the campaign “a compelling message to the trade about consumer reaction to cotton substitution.”
And Cotton Incorporated didn’t stop there, propelling a third major initiative, “Cotton LEADS,” a collaborative partnership designed to provide support for various research projects, act as a centralized hub for information regarding best practices and facilitate the creation of partnerships centered around cotton and its promotion.
Formed in partnership with the National Cotton Council of America, Cotton Council International (CCI) and Cotton Australia, Cotton LEADS is first animated by a desire to raise awareness about responsible growing practices on display in the U.S. and Australia.
The core commitment of Cotton LEADS is the advocacy of the socially and environmentally responsible production of cotton. The basis of the initiative’s creation is the recognition that sustainable cotton production requires a collective stewardship that not only encourages and communicates best practices but also supports new research and development as well as investment.
The U.S. and Australia together comprise the geographic center of Cotton LEADS’ efforts since each furnishes stellar examples of best production practices and because both combined account for 17 percent of global cotton production.
Kevin Latner, executive director of CCI, said, “U.S. and Australia cotton users can take confidence in the Cotton LEADS core principles, which are built upon a track record of responsible production practices and a commitment to continuing improvement.”
The response to Cotton LEADS from the industry has been enthusiastic. Since it was created in October of 2013, seventy-five brands and manufacturers have signed on from all over the world, making the endeavor truly global. Mark Messura, Senior Vice President of Global Supply Chain Marketing for Cotton Incorporated, said, “Textile brands and manufacturers are looking for large volumes and a reliable supply of responsibly-produced fiber, as well as proof of that responsible production. Cotton LEADS demonstrates the how cotton grown in the Australia and the U.S. meet this criteria and fits into the sustainable sourcing guidelines of today’s textile businesses.”
The good news is that Cotton Incorporated’s work seems to be producing fruit. Through November 2013, cotton’s share of the apparel market has averaged 56.4%, almost commensurate with 2012 levels. Devine reported, “This suggests that cotton’s share has stabilized and could be an indication that retailers and brands understand consumer preferences for cotton; and realize that with cotton prices near the long-term average, it makes economic sense to deliver the products that consumers are looking for.”
While there is still room for future improvement, Devine remarked that a threshold was crossed from crisis into steady repair. “Generally, I think that we can say that the bleeding has stopped, and now we wait for the healing to begin.”