I had the pleasure of presenting at this year’s Cotton’s Revolutions Founders Thinking Session and attending the Cotton USA Brand & Retailer Leadership Summit on March 11th and 12th.
Two leading themes came out of both of these events: 1) long-term sourcing partnerships can be beneficial and should be promoted, and 2) the cotton industry should improve the image of cotton within the eyes of consumers and brands. I happened to present these two topics in the Founder’s Thinking Session and I would like to share a few points with you, along with input from participants.
Developing stronger partnerships
The cotton industry faces challenges (labor, climatic, fiber, and crop competition). These factors can have devastating impacts on members of the cotton industry, especially the least prepared and resilient (e.g. farmers, small- or medium-sized enterprises, operators in water stressed regions). Yet their success is essential for a healthy and resilient global cotton supply chain.
Currently, the cotton industry’s supply chain is largely based on transactional relationships. This structure limits potential investments to ones that are discrete, limited in size, and – in a nutshell – insufficient to address the risks the cotton industry faces. Overcoming many of these challenges will require strategic, coordinated, and complementary investments and commitment across the entire supply chain. Shifting from transactional to strategic and mutually beneficial partnerships could allow for more significant investments, both financially and through a stronger commitment to the partnership.
Sourcing partnerships can facilitate the transfer of technical skills, improved efficiencies, and greater trust, which in turn will lead to a stronger, more resilient, and more profitable cotton industry. Partnerships can also spur improvements to governance interactions throughout a supply chain, leading to the spread of good governance practices. One issue that arose during the Founders Thinking Session (and previous Thinking Sessions), was the need to address the current imbalance of power within the supply chain – brands and large exporters having an unequal share of the power or negotiating power, respectively. What is more troubling is that many brands neither have any relationship with nor understand the constraints and risks facing farmers, ginners, merchants, spinners or even mills. Yet their sourcing decisions (e.g. cancelled orders, change orders) can pose significant and negative impacts. Brands could play an important role in, and reap benefits from, the creation of a more resilient and successful supply chain. They first need to understand how the supply chain operates and what is within their sphere of influence.
Improving cotton’s image
In addition to a general consensus that the cotton industry would benefit from stronger partnerships, there was agreement that the cotton industry would also profit from telling its story. By failing to share the positive social story or the advancements in water and pesticide consumption, the industry has let others “fill the airwaves” with outdated, negative images of cotton and the cotton industry.
The cotton industry has a good story to tell.
- It’s a renewable natural resource that is often rainfed or efficiently irrigated.
- It is grown in more than 100 countries, 50 of which depend on cotton for a significant portion of their export earnings. More than 100 million family units work directly in cotton production, and supporting jobs are estimated at one billion people worldwide (ICAC, 2008).
- Technology advances have reduced the quantity and toxicity of inputs. According to Cropnosis Limited, Cotton’s share by value of global pesticide consumption declined from 11 percent in 1998 to 6.8 percent in 2008. Insecticide use declined from 19 percent in 1998 to 15.7 percent in 2008.
- Cotton production has also reduced its consumption of water. Water accounts for three percent of the volume of water used in agriculture, proportionate to cotton’s share of world arable land use, as opposed to the 11 percent consumers believe it uses.
We must create an authentic, credible, understandable, and emotional message that conveys all of cotton’s impacts and benefits. We should encourage farmers, along with other members of the supply chain, to share their personal stories. Dahlen Hancock, a fourth generation Texan cotton farmer, gave one of the most impactful and insightful presentations of the Summit by simply telling his story of running a family-owned cotton farm. It was impactful because it was authentic.
We must support these stories with credible data to demonstrate the progress the cotton industry has already made in recent years as well as the projected progress we will surely make in future years. The International Cotton Advisory Committee’s (ICAC’s) Expert Panel on Social, Environmental and Economic Performance (SEEP) of Cotton Production has done a good job of analyzing actual data from several top cotton producing regions (Australia, Brazil, India Turkey and USA). The expert panel consists of members from research institutes, international institutions, organic cotton experts, and others, and its data should be accepted as credible.
Programs such as Field to Market and their assessment tool, Fieldprint Calculator, are used by the US cotton industry to measure and evaluate their performance and impacts through a reputable and standardized methodology and system.
With this said, it would be beneficial for all if the industry worked to harmonize the plethora of sustainability standards and certifications to align efforts and communicate clear and concise messages to consumers.
The emotional aspect of cotton has a lot of potential to shift existing mindsets, create loyalty, and, most importantly, develop a relationship with consumers. Creating emotional connections with consumers who share their values can be powerful. Clothes, possibly more than any other products, are an expression of who a person is – both in terms of style and values. Clothes are admired, discussed, borrowed, and given among a wide range of consumers. Consumers who are proud of a brand or material (i.e. cotton) are likely to promote a positive image of the brand or material that can spread among friends and acquaintances. It all begins by helping people to become proud of wearing cotton again.
I believe the industry will come together to seize the opportunities discussed here and during the recent Thinking Session and Summit. The cotton industry will have a bright and successful future if it does.