It’s World Cotton Day 2021. And while that sounds like a great reason to break out the hoodies and denim jeans, the celebration plans go so much further. The theme for this year’s event is “Cotton for Good,” and the focus will include sustainability, women in cotton, and brand and retailer partnerships.
Begun two years ago by the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Cotton Day (WCD) recognizes the importance of cotton as a global commodity. When it hosted the first celebration, the WTO’s aim was to give exposure to farmers, processors, researchers and businesses, and their contributions to the cotton value chain.
Today, as then, events will be held around the globe and the general public is invited to tune in to see cotton’s enduring, positive impact. The regions that will be represented include North America, Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Activities will include in-person field visits, parades through communities, webinars, and research discussions.
This year, cotton’s sustainability comes to the forefront as climate change threatens not just the plant itself, but the communities and industries that surround its farming, milling, and textile and food production. Worldwide 26 million (metric) tonnes — the equivalent of 28.66 million U.S. tons — of cotton are produced every year, according to the Bremen Cotton Exchange. The organization estimates 150 million people are involved in its production and further processing.
The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) video explains why cotton is a powerful ally in the fight against climate change, even while it’s at risk from both drought and flooding. As part of World Cotton Day, the ICAC will offer further information regarding climate change’s effects on cotton.
Attendees of the virtual and in-person celebrations will also hear from Life Is Good’s Bert Jacobs, CEO and co-founder of the apparel brand. Jacobs is set to outline the brand’s sustainability practices and global non-profit work. And Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, will discuss how responsible fiber and sourcing decisions can drive fashion into a “force for good.”
The information and presentations are in response to, particularly, the fashion industry’s persistent use of synthetic textiles like polyester, nylon, rayon, and viscose, which now account for more than 60 percent of fabric fibers. This, despite the fact that consumers have consistently and overwhelmingly stated they prefer clothes made of cotton: 85 percent say cotton apparel is their favorite compared to synthetics, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2021 Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. And 75 percent say better quality clothes are made from natural fibers such as cotton. What’s more, 82 percent say cotton apparel is the most sustainable, compared to manmade fiber clothing.
Apparel makers should note that consumers equate durability with sustainability (47 percent), according to the Cotton Council International (CCI) and Cotton Incorporated’s 2020 Global Durability Study. And about two-thirds (65 percent) say cotton is the longest lasting fiber for their apparel, according to the Monitor™ survey.
Additionally, consumers associate positive attributes with cotton, such as saying it’s comfortable (66 percent), breathable (57 percent), and sustainable/environmentally friendly (45 percent), according to the 2020 Global Durability Study. Brands and manufacturers should also keep in mind that the majority of consumers are willing to pay more to keep cotton from being substituted in their underwear (63 percent), T-shirts (60 percent), casual clothes (56 percent), denim jeans (54 percent), childrenswear (51 percent), and activewear (51 percent).
It would benefit the industry to pay heed to what shoppers are saying. Consider that even before the pandemic, the apparel industry needed a hero. The National Retail Federation reported in January 2020 that sales at clothing and clothing accessory stores were down 1.6 percent from the year before. Then the pandemic crashed in and apparel sales were crippled, dropping 78.8 percent in April 2020, compared to a month earlier, when they had dropped 50.5 percent from February.
Brands and retailers have been told for years now that “consumers hold the power” and they want businesses to react to their every want and need instantly. Yet despite slumping sales that began pre-COVID, as well as consumers’ clear desire for clothes that are made using sustainable, natural fibers, the fashion industry — especially fast fashion — continues to churn out synthetic apparel.
But cotton isn’t simply a natural fiber. Organizers of World Cotton Day will remind participants that cotton is a poverty-alleviating crop in some of the least developed countries, providing sustainable employment to people across the globe. Additionally, cotton biodegrades quickly compared with synthetic alternatives (cotton degraded 76 percent in 250 days compared to polyester, which degraded 4 percent in the same timeframe), decreasing the amount of plastics entering the earth’s waterways and helping to keep them clean. Cotton is also the only agricultural commodity that provides both fiber and food. Cottonseed oil is used in an array of products, from salad dressing to toothpaste, while cottonseed meal is fed to animals for dairy and meat production.
Although animals can safely eat cottonseed, a naturally occurring compound called gossypol that’s in the seeds is toxic to humans. Of course, gossypol is removed in the cottonseed oil process. But new strains of cottonseeds are being developed with minimal or reduced gossypol, which would present an opportunity to use cottonseed as a human food product. This could be especially valuable as climate change has brought drought conditions to multiple crops just this year, such as 98 percent of spring wheat, 91 percent of durum wheat, and 31 percent of corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). If all cottonseed were grown without gossypol, the seed byproduct of cotton production could meet the protein needs of 590 million people for one year.
In the U.S., just 10 percent of the cotton crop is produced in areas experiencing drought, according to the USDA. World Cotton Day aims to drive home that, as a crop that grows in arid climates, cotton thrives in places no other crop can.
World Cotton Day is also an opportunity to set the record straight on some of the myths and misinformation that persists about how cotton is grown. The Transformers Foundation, a unified group representing the denim industry, held a webinar titled “Cotton Claims: The Good, The Bad and The Nuanced” as part of its “The Truth” series. In it, the panel of experts tackles misconceptions like those surrounding pesticide usage and water inputs.
While events will be held globally, the ICAC wants the “World Cotton Day – Cotton For Good” message to be a constant among organizers.
“The more we speak with a consistent message at events around the world, the more impact World Cotton Day will have,” the organization states, adding that it wants to emphasize, “The many, many wonderful things that cotton brings to our lives: employment (in some of the world’s least-developed countries), use of natural fibers, the many uses of the versatile cotton plant, protecting the environment from plastic pollution and so much more.”