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Kingpins conference discusses sustainability of cotton
Dec '12
Sustainability enjoys an interesting position in today’s fashion industry. It has become a ubiquitous and especially vague term used by designers, brands, marketing departments and manufacturers. But what does it actually mean? And, more importantly, is it possible?

The Kingpins Show, the international boutique denim sourcing trade show founded in 2004, invited a group of industry experts in the fiber / fabric / seed / farming and sourcing industries to hold a no-holds-barred conversation on the topic. They candidly discussed their definitions of sustainability; if it is possible to grow cotton sustainably; and the pressures and motivations that are shaping sustainable efforts by growers, brands, retailers and consumers.

Hosted at the July 2012 Kingpins New York show, the panel was moderated by Jeffrey Silberman, Chairperson, Textile Development and Marketing Department, Fashion Institute of Technology, and executive director of the International Forum for Cotton Promotion; and Andrew Olah, CEO of Olah, Inc. and founder of the Kingpins show. Panelists included: Anne Gillespie, Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange); Dr. Alan Ayers, Bayer CropScience; Dr. Keith Edminsten, Cotton Extension Specialist, professor at North Carolina State University; Eddie Adams, cotton grower; and Dr. Kater Hake, Cotton Inc.

Even amongst these top-level experts, sustainability is a contentious topic. The conversation was civil, but pointed to an important issue that must be seriously and thoughtfully addressed. Some panelists opined that sustainability is an impossibility – even in the natural world. Others believe that cotton has already reached sustainability in its production practices.

Panelists discussed who they think is behind the sustainability movement. Is it consumers or is it the companies in the supply chain who want to cover their bases and protect themselves from criticism?

“Consumers are really concerned about [sustainability]. But they’re not willing to pay more for textiles that are labeled as sustainable or organic or green,” said Kater Hake. “They want fit and fashion and price… but if you mess up, if you screw up, they’ll really penalize you… I think we have all pain and probably no gain from the consumer standpoint. They’ll really beat up on us, but they probably won’t pay us a premium.”

Another interesting angle on the conversation came about when the environmental impact of cotton vs. synthetic fibers. “How does it happen that the retailer is willing to say that ‘cotton has this problem, that problem, that problem’ - but nobody looks at the chemical fibers [that rely on non-renewable resources and chemicals] as problems?” asked Jeffrey Silberman. The panelists’ conflicting answers to this question begged the question: do we have enough information to make informed decisions about sustainable sourcing or to accurately compare the environmental impact of natural vs. chemical fibers?

The Kingpins Show is an invitation-only, boutique denim sourcing show featuring a highly-edited selection of vendors that include denim and sportswear fabric mills from the U.S., Japan, China, India, Morocco, Mexico and Europe, wash houses, full package manufacturers, trim providers and business solutions. Kingpins, which launched in 2004, produces biannual shows in New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Hong Kong.


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