Baylor Researcher Leads Charge On Promoting Cotton As 'Sustainable' Fiber

April 23, 2009

Media contact: Will Crockett, College of Arts and Sciences, (254) 710-3145

With a state-wide economic impact of $5.2 billion, cotton ranks as the leading cash crop in Texas, making Texas first in U.S. cotton production. The increase in cotton production from overseas, particularly from China, places the rural cotton communities of west Texas on a global stage. One Baylor University researcher is leading the charge to promote cotton as a sustainable fiber and its value in the textiles industry.

"Even though the short-term outlook for cotton demand may not seem good, demand for cotton in the long-term is strong," says Dr. Lorynn Divita, assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at Baylor. "The increase in the standard of living in developing nations is driving the demand, along with cotton's sustainability. If Texas cotton growers can continue their efforts, we should expect to see the price of cotton increase."

To further raise awareness on cotton, Divita and her students will host Project Cotton, an event to recognize and reward innovations in cotton fabric in a variety of uses, at 6 p.m., Friday, April 24, in Bennett Auditorium on the Baylor campus. Representatives and trend forecasters from Cotton Inc. also will attend the event to share with students the latest developments for cotton fabrics in fashion merchandising and interior design.

The event is significant because it educates future apparel buyers and merchandisers on cotton's important role in the industry. It also affirms what the students learn in course work about how seemingly small local economies are truly part of a larger global market.

Cotton Inc., the industry association that advocates on behalf of U.S. cotton producers to build and sustain the cotton market, has awarded Divita two grants for her work in raising awareness of U.S. cotton through her research and teaching.

Divita's research and work with cotton farmers highlights cotton as one of the most sustainable crops in the U.S. and in Texas as well as its appeal to fashion merchandisers. "As environmental concerns arise across several agricultural issues, cotton has been found to be one of the most sustainable fibers and leaves a smaller environmental footprint than most others," she says.

Cotton Inc. identifies cotton as highly sustainable thanks to drought-resistant and insect-resistant strains of cotton. Pest control applications have been cut in half, and farmers require 45 percent less irrigation to grow a pound of cotton. This has resulted in additional reductions in carbon emissions in farming, which Cotton Inc. estimates to be the equivalent of removing more than 27,000 cars from the road.

These scientific innovations, along with improvements in farming technology, allow west Texas farmers to produce higher yields off less acreage than their overseas competitors, says Divita. "These Texas farmers are very much aware of their overseas competition. Some of them have even been to China or are considering making the trip. Since cotton is one of the best crops for the west Texas climate, the farmers are dedicated to adapting their practices to stay in business and stay profitable."

While the trends toward organically grown cotton from overseas may resonate with environmentally concerned suppliers and consumers, Divita warns that imported organic cotton still has many negative impacts on the environment. "Even though there may be demand for organic cotton from Turkey, there has been a significant impact on the environment by the time it gets to the mill in North Carolina," she explains. "A Texas farm that uses a moderate amount of herbicides and pesticides and is sent by rail to the same mill leaves less of an environmental mark than the organic import."

As more mills and manufacturers seek to build a greener supply chain, they will be more likely to consider the domestic crop, which is good news for west Texas farmers.

Promoting cotton to the fashion industry also is important. Once known as the material for undergarments and casual wear, cotton is now being hailed for its versatility as a fiber for couture. Other innovations in technology have led to cotton fabrics that are breathable yet water repellant and t-shirts with a "dry fit" property that removes sweat away from the skin.

"Modern scientific methods have allowed west Texas cotton farmers to produce greater yields per acre without harming the environment," says Divita. "Events like Project Cotton affirm for future industry professionals the value of cotton as a fashionable and sustainable fiber as well as its important role in the domestic economy."