Cotton has a Copy

Biopolymer & Fiber research Institute employee weighing cotton and visually analyzing the sample. Biopolymer & Fiber research Institute employee weighing cotton and visually analyzing the sample.

Victim to a fashion industry that prioritized quantity over quality, what was once held in such high esteem is now seen as trivial to most consumers. Imitated, an imposter yet a successor: cotton has a copy.

ack in the late 90s and early 2000s the cotton industry started to feel the impact of synthetic materials. With a declining trend in cotton consumption came a multitude of concerns for not just farmers, but for the consumer as well.
“Balance between man-made fibers verses natural fibers, like cotton, is a very delicate balance,” commented Shawn Wade, director of policy analysis and research for Plains Cotton Growers Inc.

Cotton’s Observation

The cotton lint industry has been working tirelessly to change its public perception. It could not wait for research and innovation to take over, updating the natural fiber to modern day society. Tired of public scrutiny on the World Trade Organization’s ruling, cotton used to be king. What this natural fiber was asked to compete with was something that was not even biological. Cotton was anything but meek; cotton had proved tried and true and a reliable staple.

Polyester is a category of polymers that has been defined as long-chain polymers, which is chemically composed of at least 85% by weight of ester and a dihydric alcohol and a terephthalic acid. A few characteristics of polyester would include but is not limited to: an extremely strong and durable fabric, mildew and abrasion resistant, wrinkle resistant and it is quick drying.

In a world trend report over world textile demand, the International Cotton Advisory Committee found that cotton demand in 2010 was 1.7 million tons lower than in 2007. Compared to other traditional fibers, cotton was drastically higher than the other fibers monitored.

“Balance between man-made fibers verses natural fibers, like cotton, is a very delicate balance.”

When comparing cotton and synthetics, there are pros and cons on each side. One is environmentally friendly, but the other is cost effective. With cost playing a huge factor in this equation, China has built a capacity for synthetic fibers. With manmade fibers being highly subsidized, they are prone to overproduce at a high rate. This puts a textile out on the market at a lower price than a comparable, higher quality product.

“The quality and the different parameters of synthetics are much more even running. They are manmade, and so they can be much more perfect. Cotton is a natural fiber. There is nothing perfect about it,” said Steve Verett, vice president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc.

Environmental Awareness

Though cotton may not be perfect, there is research to support why it is sustainably a better option.

“Already, they’re finding that the particles that are coming off in the wash from these knitted performance fabrics are all ending up in the wastewater and they’re finding them very harmful to aquaculture,” said Verett. “Those particles never go away. They are there forever, and maybe not forever but they’ve got the half-life of Uranium, whereas cotton is biodegradable.”

Consumer Perceptions

Verett commented that one thing that amazed him was the consumer interest in where their food is being sourced and how it is being treated but they are not necessarily concerned with there they clothes are being made or how it impacts the economy and environment.

“They don’t even think to consider and ask those same questions about the clothes they wear; that they’re more than willing to wear clothes made out of – who knows – gasoline, and somehow see that as being sustainable,” declared Verett as he passionately spoke out of concern for the public.

Wade said the polyester clothing trend is now nearly synonymous with the 60s. Not one garment was breathable, carried
a decent scent by the end of the day, or was practical in terms of outdoor nor body temperature to wear daily. By gaining market share due to polyesters ease of care, there was a market for working women who wanted an outfit that could handle her long workday and still be able to maintain a cosmopolitan societal image. What those women may not have realized was they could have been wearing, instead, something that would have kept them cooler and more comfortable.

Correcting the Pendulum

One reason why polyester is attractive is because it is easy to care for. No wrinkles and you can throw the garment in a bag and go.

“When Cotton Incorporated came along they were able to take that away…[Polyester companies] were able to take a lot of that back because they did a few things. That’s when we first started doing permanent press cotton or you know wrinkle free cotton,” said Verett.

Verett described the challenges synthetic fibers pose to cotton lint as a pendulum.

“I’ve lived long enough to see, it’s like a pendulum,” he said. “Things tend to kind of correct and sometimes they overcorrect and that’s kind of what’s happened with this deal now. It’s kind of overcorrected.”

While the pendulum has been overcorrected, Verett and Wade both agreed the synthetic industry has done a good job of marketing their product.

“They’ve done a heck of a job in marketing with logos and things that 6-and 7-year-old kids are wearing. They don’t need performance fabrics. But that’s the cool thing. That’s what all their sports heroes are wearing. And, so even though it feels bad, and it may not be that great but that’s the deal,” claimed Verett.

Although cotton has a copy, Verett and Wade believe the lint product is headed toward the center of the pendulum.

History might correct itself but that is for the economy to decide. Cotton or synthetics? That is for you to choose. Check out the fiber facts before selecting your next garment.

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