April 11, 2021

These Were Cotton Conference Bremen’s hottest topics

9 min read

The 35th International Cotton Conference was held as a digital event on March 17-18 under the title “Passion for Cotton!” Organized by the Bremen Cotton Exchange and the Faserinstitut Bremen, it hosted about 90 speakers and panelists through a tight program of 14 sessions designed for visitors with different information interests such as sustainable cotton cultivation, transparency in the supply chain and corporate responsibility, along with increased yields, improved fiber quality, quality testing and standardization.

Parallel to the sessions, poster presentations and virtual rooms offered extra occasions for speakers and participants to learn more in-depth information and exchange opinions on the vast and versatile world of cotton.

The SPIN OFF picked some key statements about some of cotton’s future challenges and developments heard at the event.

COTTON, A NEVER-ENDING SOURCE OF INNOVATION

Thomas Schneider, Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW), Germany:
“We have seen that cotton is indispensable because of its properties as a natural, innovative, renewable and biodegradable raw material that can also be recycled. The possibilities of its use go far beyond processing into clothing and, from a research perspective, are far from exhausted.”


Mary Ankeny, Cotton Inc., USA:
“Cotton is a natural versatile plant. It provides fibers for textile applications such as apparel and home products. Cotton fibers can also be used in nonwoven applications for medical and hygienic products. Cotton also contains oil that can be used for food and cosmetics among other uses. The plants’ leaves can be used for different uses including oil-based textile dyes and medical products. During the manufacturing phase production waste can be diverted and reworked into the yarn spinning process or repurposed for nonwovens or other applications. At a consumer level a cotton garment is durable enough to be used for years and when not needed it can be offered for resell.”

Mary Ankeny, Vice President, Product Development & Implementation Operations, Cotton Inc.

Mary Ankeny, Vice President, Product Development & Implementation Operations, Cotton Inc.

ORGANIC COTTON, MOST ASKED FOR, BUT RARE

Maximilian Daebel, Otto Stadtlander GmbH, Germany:
“The demand for organic cotton has increased within the last 12 months. A recent GOTS survey showed that 60% of all interviewed companies changed their sustainability policy focus on environment and health due to Covid-19.
Although at the moment we are facing a severe shortage in organic cotton as major consuming markets have imposed sanctions against, for instance, fraudulent activities in Indian Organic cotton organizations that caused uncertainties in regard to authenticity. Prices have been increasing steadily over the last seven months by about 60%, and we expect this trend to continue until the next harvest in the Northern Hemisphere forecasted by November 2021.”

A VOICE FROM THE DENIM INDUSTRY

Andrew Olah, founder, Transformers Foundation/Kingpins Show, USA:
“We as the Transformers Foundation are members from the value chain. We are manufacturers of fibers, yarns, textiles, chemicals, garments, machinery producers and laundries. In the past the value chain has never connected together and made its voice heard, but I think ours is a very significant voice as there’s so much we can do. We are a very strong community that represent $70 billion per year and by collaborating together we can do an enormous difference in helping the denim industry become more sustainable.”

Andrew Olah, founder, Transformers Foundation/Kingpins

Photo: Transformers Foundation

Andrew Olah, founder, Transformers Foundation/Kingpins

“We are an organization that is really concerned about impact, not about exercises, and are focused on action. We innovate, have transparent behavior and cooperate, collaborate, coordinate, celebrate and congratulate with the best.”

“Among problems blocking the jeanswear industry becoming more sustainable there are various factors including greenwashing, wrong statements, climate crisis urgency and wrong costs.”

“As the denim manufacturing industry, we are the industry catalysts for consumers to understand the best available environmentally sustainable products, real products versus greenwashed [ones] and misleading products, for brands and retailers to transform their jeans into best-class high added value and to express our voice on industry threads and solutions.”

“The Earth is like our bodies. If our body temperature grows 1° C every year what would we say, and what would our doctor say? How many months could we live with that? And that’s what happening with the Earth…we should have the Earth going back to its normal temperature.”

“Companies often say: ‘In 2025 we are going to do this,’ but when 2025 comes that manager might be gone and that company might say: ‘We never said that, that person said it.’”

“Companies get the benefit for what they say now, but they might never get that accomplished. And what’s the penalty if they don’t? None.”

“The cost for the transformation is all on the supply chain. It is not on the retailer. NGOs don’t have an idea of how to make jeans. If a famous brand does 500 or 2,000 jeans according to eco-friendly standards they applaud them, though it doesn’t matter if they do 500 millions the other way at the same time.”

 

POLYESTER OR COTTON?

Kjersti Kviseth, 2025 Design, Norway:
“Is cotton better than polyester? Such discussions are not very constructive. People think that cotton is bad, versus viscose; then others speak of polyester. We won’t be able to avoid that all these fibers are used, but cotton has its own place in the ecosystem as well. I am against these fights among synthetics versus natural, even if I am more pro natural ones. I prefer to turn the discussion from profit to value as we need to reduce the amount of textiles we put in the market. We don’t need more textiles. We need to create much more value with less, and circular economy can support this with a business model based on repairing, reusing and other similar approaches. If I use my T-shirts twice the time without replacing them so fast, maybe I can manage to reduce my carbon footprint by 50%. We have a lot to discover to bring to the attention to the way we treat fibers, yarns, textiles and products. These are the new challenges. A product’s life may be short, and that’s fair, but a fiber’s one should be long.”

Kjersti Kviseth, founder, 2025 Design

Kjersti Kviseth, founder, 2025 Design

Mary Ankeny, Cotton Inc., USA:
“Maybe polyester is recyclable but once it’s in the hands of the consumer it is no longer sustainable and recyclable. People have to understand that we are not recycling polyester, but we are recycling plastic bottles. The industry needs to educate the consumer more and explain how things are and what challenges there are to recycle apparel. If a product is recyclable that doesn’t make it sustainable.”


BETTING ON CIRCULAR ECONOMY

Rolf Heimann, Hessnatur Stiftung, Germany:
“A year ago I was in Rwanda, and they told me: ‘Please, tell your government we are no longer interested in your leftover and waste.’ When I discussed it with several stakeholders, they recognized that the problem of used clothes is getting bigger and bigger. We need different views and philosophy. A very good piece of news is that sustainability is a value driver and, finally, brands begin to understand that sustainability is a part of the value. This is a good starting point for engaging us all.”

“I always teach my students this mantra: ‘A skirt, a shirt, a bag,’ meaning that we need to start a mind shift as when we start designing a skirt we need to keep in mind it could eventually become a shirt in its second life and then eventually later a bag.”

Mary Ankeny, Cotton Inc., USA:
“We can recognize three phases describing the circular attributes of cotton.
Phase one is reuse. A well-made durable cotton garment can be used for years and when not needed it can be resold.
Phase two is recycling. Textiles made of 90% to 100% cotton can be mechanically recycled and used to create new cotton products. For The Blue Jeans Go Green program started in 2006 they diverted more than 2.5 million pieces and 1,030 tons of denim waste from landfill.
Moreover, there are more recycling programs through which cotton keeps its strength. Cotton can also be enzymatically hydronized back to glucose monomers that can be used to create bio-based chemicals such as acids or ethanol.
The third phase focuses in cotton’s ability to return to the earth after it can no longer be recycled. Cotton products are biodegradable in soil, compost, wastewater, salt water and fresh water environments. Cotton degrades faster in cellulosic fibers and manufactured fibers like rayon and oil-based synthetics. Composed of cellulose that can be broken down to glucose, cotton is recognized as a food source, for organic microbes and end-of-soil and water. And finally cotton gives back to the earth. Growers can return the remains of the cotton plants to the soil to import nutrients to the fields. Brands and manufacturers can also play a role in the circular path and benefit by choosing cotton as a preferred raw material.”

Johannes Stefan, Lenzing, Austria:
“With our Refibra Technology, textile waste may one day be a key ingredient in our production–just like it was for paper production centuries ago.”

TRACEABILITY IS KEY

Dr. Gediminas Mikutis, Haelixa, Switzerland:
“Due to complex supply chains, cotton is often under scrutiny as consumers want to know who made their clothes and under which circumstances they were produced. Additionally, governmental regulations that make manufacturers and brands accountable for sustainability standards and violations in their supply chains are on the rise. Transparency is routinely identified as the most effective tool for measuring impact and increasing accountability across supply chains. When looking at transparency of cotton supply chains, we have to start with traceability.

Chain of custody systems like ERP, certifications and blockchain, among others, store information reliably, but lack connection to the physical item itself. If a fiber is mixed or exchanged at any one node, the chain of custody won’t be able to detect it. We have developed and patented an innovative technology based on DNA to mark and trace cotton from farm to retail. DNA is engineered to withstand industrial textile processing such as bleaching, dyeing and textile finishing.”

Dr. Gediminas Mikutis, CTO, Haelixa

Dr. Gediminas Mikutis, CTO, Haelixa

Stefan Ziegler, WWF, Germany:
“Annually approximately 25 million tons of cotton are produced, which are used to make 50% of all clothes, household goods and other commercial products. For the production of cotton, surface and ground waters are often diverted to irrigate cotton fields, leading to freshwater loss through evaporation and inefficient water management. This often has a severe impact on the environment, and more than 50% of the global cotton production area is under high physical water risk. Being able to determine geographic origin of cotton should lie in the interest of textile producer companies not only for quality reasons but also for reputational risks regarding the plants’ consumptive water footprint. We carried ahead a study on undyed cotton fibers of known country of origin, explored the potential for Isotope Ratio Mass Spectroscopy (IRMS) and trace element analysis to be utilized as a tool for cotton fiber analysis in an attempt to reveal discriminatory information on the provenance of cotton. The research confirmed that chemical profiling can be very useful in answering specific compliance questions whether a sample comes from a specific region or not. The study has also shown that cotton production areas in high physical water risk regions, such as certain watersheds in India, China, Uzbekistan and Turkey, are characterized by distinctive chemical and isotopic signatures. However, sample efforts from those countries need to be increased to obtain a better understanding of seasonal variance of isotopic systems and trace metals’ availability.”

BETTING ON WIDER TARGETS

La Rhea Pepper, Textile Exchange, USA:
“We are involved in our Climate+ strategy meant to reduce GHG emissions by 45% by 2030. In order to reach this target we need to promote more durable quality goods, supporting regenerative soil practices among others. Talking about cotton, better soil practices will mitigate these emissions. We want to sensitize on reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, building biodiversity and improving water use and retention. This will be the common ground of all kinds of cotton cultivation. It will move away from chemical-based cultivation, improve more toward regenerative practices and the use of organic components.”

Jessi Christiansen, Bayer Crop Science, USA:
“Our vision at Bayer Crop Science is ‘Health for all, hunger for none.’ We are focused on a series of targets by 2030 in order to achieve tailored crop solutions for our customers. We aim to achieve, among our targets, 30% greenhouse emissions per kilogram of produced crop and reducing 30% in crop protection impact on the environment.”

The next edition of the International Cotton Conference will be held March 30-31, 2022, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Bremen Cotton Exchange’s foundation.

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