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Taking on Tech: Cotton’s Innovative Battle to Outperform Synthetic Fibers

by Aubry Heinrich

Image courtesy of Cotton Incorporated

Innovation in the cotton industry does not stop at the end of a row in the field. Research and marketing company Cotton Incorporated is making sure that cotton fiber stays at the forefront of the textile industry by directing its research toward the existing uses of cotton fiber and finding new ways to expand its consumption. 

“In many ways, cotton as a natural fiber is truly a miracle of nature. It has all the right qualifications. From a sustainability standpoint, it’s natural, it’s renewable, it’s recyclable, it’s biodegradable. And thanks to the efforts of our cotton producers, it can be sustainably and responsibly grown,” said Mark Messura, Senior Vice President of Global Supply Chain Marketing at Cotton Incorporated. 

“All of that is important, but it’s not enough. Fibers also have to deliver value to the manufacturers, the retailers, the brands and the consumers. That means we have to take all of those natural benefits of cotton, combined with our growers’ ability to produce it in a responsible way,” he said. 

“We have to marry that with things like performance technologies or innovative fabrications so that we can show the industry that you can be confident using cotton while also delivering value to your customer.” 

Innovations like Cotton Incorporated’s performance cotton technologies have helped add cotton fiber to the manufacturing and fashion industries. Improvements in durability, abrasion resistance, and moisture-wicking technology have been a part of the company’s efforts to keep cotton a relevant go-to ingredient in products. 

“Approximately 80 to 85% of cotton fiber goes into clothing. So, as you can imagine, much of our research and technical work is to support cotton use in the apparel market,” Messura said. “But you also can be innovative in bringing value and fashionability to your customer, so that’s why we need it. It’s not enough just to have performance. It’s not enough just to have sustainability. We have to combine those things to really show the true competitive advantage of cotton.” 

Performance cotton technologies are just the latest in a long list of improvements made to the manufacturing of cotton textiles. 

“The company is now 51 years old,” Messura said. “For 51 years, we’ve been doing research to improve the performance of cotton. That goes way back even to the earliest days when the company was looking for ways to create a better durable press finish.” 

From improving a cotton textile to withstand wrinkles to now creating a fabric that can offer protection from rain and snow, Cotton Incorporated’s research is leading innovation in the apparel industry. The company even has a team of industry-leading trend forecasters to help stay ahead of trends and continue to make innovative improvements that add to cotton’s advantages. 

“One of the most important areas of research we do is actually with professional trend forecasters in our fashion marketing team based in our New York City office,” Messura said. “This team is charged with looking at fashion trends, fabric trends, and lifestyle trends, and thinking about where those trends are going in the next two to three years. This team of insightful experts puts together a forecast of color, fashion, and silhouette direction. We share that forecast with the industry because growers and PCCA members need to know that the products you are seeing on a shelf, in a store, or for display online, were just product ideas 18 to 24 months before they ever appeared at the consumer level. We work hard to ensure that cotton is the ingredient in those early product decisions.” 

New technology innovations have allowed Cotton Incorporated to enhance the demand for natural cotton and, therefore, more desirable for rising fashion trends. Abrasion resistance, water repellency, and moisture-wicking are three different applications of the performance technologies Cotton Incorporated has been helping manufacturers produce. The company’s technologies are licensed for use by manufacturers, retailers, or brands only if their textile products contain a minimum amount of cotton. 

“In this way,” explains Messura, “our technologies are a direct means of incentivizing companies to use more cotton in their products.” 

TOUGH COTTON™ Technology is an abrasion-resistant finish, so that cotton apparel products can last longer and be more durable. That means manufacturers don’t have to put polyester in a product to make it stronger and more durable. We can show them how to do it with 100% cotton,” Messura said. “The nice thing about TOUGH COTTON Technology is it makes the product more durable, but it keeps the softness of the cotton fabric.” 

Consumers can find the TOUGH COTTON Technology in stores already. Retailers such as JC Penney®, Target®, Kohl’s®, Lands’ End®, and Walmart® all carry products with the technology in stores. Duluth Trading® is also bringing the technology to men’s shirts and sweatshirts – ideal products for cotton farmers. 

For the winter season ahead, Cotton Incorporated is helping to keep consumers dry and warm with their STORM COTTON™ Technology.

Image courtesy of Cotton Incorporated

“Our STORM COTTON Technology includes a water repellent, breathable finish. When you think of things like raincoats, or fall windbreakers or jackets, that’s a lot of fiber volume, but it’s typically not a lot of cotton,” Messura said. “STORM COTTON Technology is a water repellent, breathable finish to keep the water out, but it allows air to move through the fabric so you don’t overheat like you would in a raincoat. You stay comfortable, but you also stay dry.” 

Retail brands such as Under Armour®, Vans®, The North Face®, Hurley®, and Duluth Trading® have all adopted the STORM COTTON Technology and have products available for consumers to purchase. “We allow brands and retailers to use our technologies under different marketing names on their products. In this way, Cotton Incorporated can get broader use on cotton products under several different brand names,” notes Messura. 

With athleisure becoming a growing fashion trend, more consumers are wearing athletic-type clothing every day. Cotton Incorporated found it vital to find a place for cotton in this important activewear market. 

“TransDRY® Technology is a moisture management technology,” Messura said. “We all perspire, but the key with fabrics is what you do with that moisture, how you move it, and how do you keep the wearer of the clothing dry. TransDRY Technology can be put on a cotton garment and it moves the moisture from the inside, from next to your body, through the fabric, to the outside of the fabric so that you feel dry. The fabric does not stick to you, and the moisture can evaporate on the outside of the garment.” 

TransDRY Technology has opened the door for cotton in the athleisure fashion market. 

“Athleisure is a tremendously important market. It consumes a lot of fiber volume, and it has traditionally been the domain of synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon,” he said. “If you think of athletic clothing, most people would think of synthetics. So, for that reason, cotton had to plant a flag, we had to get in there, we had to say that cotton is a legitimate fiber and fabric choice, and can be used in these types of products.” 

TransDRY Technology products can be found in retailers such as Eddie Bauer®, Levi’s®, New Balance®, and Under Armour®. 

Growers need to keep the cotton industry innovating and increasing the overall value of the commodity, according to Messura. Growers and consumers can help support the innovations and research at Cotton Incorporated by continuing to seek out the performance cotton technologies and all cotton products in retail stores. Messura also encourages growers and people in the cotton industry to get connected with the Regional Communications Managers for the Cotton Board. 

“Cotton Incorporated staff work closely with the Cotton Board’s Regional Communication Managers to keep them informed about new products and new developments that are in the marketplace,” he said. “Through the Cotton Research and Promotion Program, and the support of cotton growers, we have been able to make the long-term investments that are necessary to develop the innovations that keep cotton competitive with other fibers. Innovation, along with responsible and sustainable cotton production, will continue to give us the marketing edge that we need for cotton.”