The U.S. cotton industry needs to expand marketing opportunities related to sustainability and the environment, according to J. Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer of Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Incorporated. The reality in the marketplace is that people are defining sustainability as organic. In reality, organic is only .01 percent of the market, he said.

“The first one out there who creates a definition could have a tremendous marketing and selling opportunity,” he said. “We don’t want someone else redefining it in a way that crowds out U.S. cotton. Domestic cotton is grown under fairly strict requirements. If you meet the U.S. government’s required definition, then it’s sustainable cotton. We want to use that as a marketing opportunity when we talk to brands and retailers. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Worsham, who spoke at the 2006 Cotton Board annual meeting in September in Scottsdale, Ariz., said cotton’s sustainability public relations effort must set the record straight about modern cotton production, especially in the United States, and highlight the environmental achievements made by the domestic industry. The U.S. cotton industry should receive credit for its sustainability record.

Sustainability does not have to equal organic production, he noted. Organic production will not increase enough to meet the demand for “environment-friendly” cotton.

“There’s 99.9 percent of the cotton market that’s non-organic and a chunk of that should be heralded as sustainable,” he said. “U.S. cotton is produced under fairly strict regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. In addition, state requirements exist on environment and labor issues.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of sustainability has three circles, he said: the environment, economics and quality of life standards.

“It’s about the intersection of all three. You must able to make a profit, be an environmental steward and have reasonable quality of life standards. In other words, you could have something good for the environment but if it requires a tremendous amount of labor then you’re not going to make any money at it.

“That’s not sustainable. There’s no hard definition that sustainability is this amount of pesticides or this strict definition of inputs.” Only organic has that definite standard.

Conventional cotton continues to receive a bad rap, and people use statistics against conventional cotton that are completely off the mark or so far out of date that makes the numbers irrelevant, Worsham said. Some people claim that 25 percent of the world’s pesticides go into cotton.

He called 8.5 percent a more accurate figure. The average grower sprays less today than 10 to 15 years ago.

Other raps have included allegations of high water use and man-hours to grow cotton. Worsham said output per water unit has risen dramatically. In addition, two-thirds of the water needed for cotton is from rainfall. The remaining third is irrigated.

An average of three man-hours is used to produce today’s cotton bale, compared to almost 300 hours in the late 1920s. He noted some countries in the world are producing cotton with 1920s-era technology.

Worsham called U.S. cotton production a modern system that embraces biotechnology to reduce inputs per unit. It is frustrating that U.S. conventional growers must defend themselves against misleading information, he said. “Instead of being an opportunity, we’re almost fighting from a deficit position. We think the U.S. cotton grower is a good steward of the land. This should be an advantage in producing U.S. cotton, not a disadvantage.”

Public perception of cotton remains positive. “Our research shows cotton is viewed in a positive light as a renewable fiber. But when you ask consumers if they are concerned about pesticides, they said, ‘Yes.’ Misleading information from people could be damaging for cotton.”

If U.S. cotton is to compete in the global marketplace, cotton has to be competitive in fiber properties. “First, we have to produce cotton with the properties that international mills desire. Second, everything we do in terms of producing yarns or fabrics is inventoried until the consumer buys the product in the final form,” said Worsham. “We always have to have our eyes on the consumer to ensure positive cotton perceptions, and that products in the marketplace meet consumer demand.

“Anything that enhances consumer needs keeps us in business another day longer. You don’t just produce cotton and turn it over to the gin. The cotton pipeline goes all the way to retail. We have to be active at all points of cotton’s cycle.”

Worsham explained that two-thirds of Cotton Incorporated’s funding is spent on marketing while the other third is for research. It’s a combination of both: a push-pull strategy. On the marketing side, consumers need to be assured that cotton is good.

On the research side, telling the story that cotton is grown efficiently, has the correct fiber properties, provides yields that lead to a grower’s profit, and includes efficient processing in the mills is essential. While research is conducted across the cotton industry, Cotton Incorporated primarily handles domestic marketing.

Synthetic fibers are a growing threat to the U.S. cotton industry. Worsham said synthetic industry representatives are working to produce fibers that mimic cotton’s traits of transferring moisture and resistant properties. Asia and China are where most of the synthetic work is under development.

U.S. growers produce about 17 percent of the world’s cotton — 20 million bales to 22 million bales in an average year — compared to 115 million bales produced globally. Major competitors include Brazil, Australia, West Africa, China and Uzbekistan.

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com