Here’s Something New: How About Organic Polyester?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

With all of the challenges facing today’s cotton growers, none is more pressing than figuring out a way to receive a premium price for cotton produced. By this, I mean a real premium value, not some inflation-spiked price.

To better understand the importance of building true value for today’s grower, I’d like to suggest that all current industry initiatives to market conventional cotton to the global textile industry miss the point: it’s not a question of if cotton is a better product or not, but rather it’s a question of marketing.

Let me explain further. First, let’s take a look at two highly successful marketing programs to market fiber – one program from the past and another from today: polyester and organic cotton.

Remember the days of double-knit polyester leisure suits? “Space age” fibers met with knitting efficiency to produce the quintessential fashion statement from the 1970’s. The space age was ushered in by none other than lowly polyester: a test tube based, oil-derived product that was successfully marketed throughout the world even though the product’s main attribute – wrinkle resistance – failed to overcome the product’s shortcomings – namely a lack of breathability. Today, however, the marketing machine continues with evermore-sophisticated versions of the same fiber, often blended with cotton to help shore up polyester’s cache as well as comfort.

Disparaging remarks aside, success is measured in the market. Today more polyester is used in clothing than cotton, a perplexing fact that frustrates everyone in the cotton business. And to add insult to injury, the largest consumer of polyester in the world today is actually one of the “greenest”, environmentally activist regions of the world – Europe. Go figure.

Speaking of green, let’s look at organic cotton. Take a small, relatively insignificant percentage of the global cotton crop and make it appear so big that retailers and clothing companies clamor for it – even though at less than ½% of all cotton grown globally there will never be enough legitimate supply to support demand!

Nevertheless, today consumers want organic cotton, so retailers are prepared to pay more for it. Why? Clever marketing, for one thing, and consumer perceptions of what is good for the environment, for another. The marketers of organic cotton have seized the opportunity (with near religious zeal) to give consumers what they want: a so-called green product even if the product may really be a fraud in that there’s very little true organic cotton grown and there’s strong evidence that organic cotton actually consumes more natural resources than does conventional cotton. But all this fails to concern many retailers as they are forced to react to the consumer demand and sell “organic” clothes even if the cotton used those clothes may not made with true organic cotton. With ill-described and conflicting definitions of what does or does not constitute organic cotton, who is to say what qualifies? In the end it’s the consumer’s choice. It’s also reflected in the bottom-line of retailers around the world as the organic movement has translated into green of a financial sort.

Come to think of it, I say forget traditional cotton. With the way fiber can be best marketed down-stream, I recommend a new product for farmers to consider. How about organic polyester? Talk about an oxymoron, but the marketing message is right. Let’s merge the best of organic marketing with the benefits of space age polyester. According to some advocates of synthetic fibers, polyester is actually a greener product than conventional cotton. Talk about marketing spin!

My whole point is that to truly market your products to any customer base, perceived value is at least as important as actual performance of the product. Organic polyester – that’s ridiculous. But the message isn’t. And it’s in this message that cotton growers have the most to learn from.

Creative marketing helps to sell good products. It’s not enough anymore to simply make good products and expect the market to buy those products at a premium. The world has changed and so that to build value for growers, that value has to be derived from down-stream, from textile mills, clothing companies and retailers. But in order to extract that value, growers and cotton merchandisers need to construct a coherent story, one that moves consumers to buy those products. Retailers can be slow to listen to new ideas unless those ideas come from consumers, such as organic cotton.

I recently gave a presentation where I held up two t-shirts made by the same manufacturer and sold by a U.S. major department store chain. One shirt was made with conventional cotton shirt and retailed for $20, while the other shirt was made of “100% organic cotton” and sold for $25. Both shirts were made in the same country and were identical except for the packaging. So what made up the difference? You decide.

I wonder what would have happened if I had shown two identical shirts made of polyester?

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