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At the recent Kingpins show in New York, I saw a bit of the future, along with some stark reminders of the past. For one thing, I saw the executive director of the BetterCotton Initiative share a cotton panel with the director of Bayer CropScience’s e3 Cotton program to discuss the lives of farmers in both the developing and developed world. Whereas just a few years ago such a panel discussion would have been impossible, at the Kingpins event I witnessed the future of cotton production: a blending of technology, sustainability, and desire to improve the lives of farmers throughout the world. As recently as five years ago, such a discussion — if it had even been possible to get the two groups together — would have deteriorated into who had the “greenest” products, fears over GMO, and tedious technical refutations. Today, it is clear that more constructive dialogue in cotton is more possible than ever before, setting the stage for future collaboration and initiatives. As a cotton person, I can attest that the Kingpins panel was an event to behold -- a positive development that holds great promise for the future.
And then there were reminders of a painful past. Visitors spoke of tight margins, flat domestic sales, and woeful corporate results from the most recent quarter. Exhibitors, in turn, worked feverishly to sell products made with technologies and business practices that have existed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: mass production, unit price programs, and product design. Or, to put it more succinctly: price, availability, and delivery. In fact, despite the challenges of today’s market, many buyers visiting Kingpins sought out only those manufacturers using the oldest equipment and techniques. Buyers today look for old in an effort to stand out in a crowded market of new. Contemporary innovations, such as sustainable production, were marketed by virtually all exhibitors, along with the promise of simpler supply chains, a return of U.S. production, and, above all, value for the purchasing dollar.
So, I participated in a show where I had a glimpse of the future, while being reminded of the past — a dichotomy for an industry struggling to exist in a rapidly changing world. For me, it’s ironic as I can see would-be cotton foes working to find common ground while buyers of today’s textiles are looking to turn back the clock to a simpler time, when production was crafted locally, and customers were visited by car or train, as opposed to 747 jet. Today’s market, although more interconnected thanks to technology and the Internet, is actually a far more impersonal place. Sellers and buyers just don’t spend the time with each other as they used to, before the advent of Skype, IM, and email. Today’s far-flung supply chains and quick-turn business practices developed in tandem with the Internet. Which gets me thinking about the future of textiles, the outlook for sourcing, product development and innovation. It also gets me thinking about the fate of today’s major producers of textiles — in particular, China. But I am not concerned with the far future, but rather just the next ten years. Let me explain.