Business
2:30 am
Wed August 27, 2014

Driven By Climate Change, Cotton Buyers Look For Alternatives

Originally published on Wed August 27, 2014 10:32 pm

VF Corp. is one of the biggest clothing companies you might not have heard of. But its brands include Lee and Wrangler jeans, Timberland shoes and The North Face, and it also makes uniforms for police and major league sports teams.

It's also a large purchaser of cotton. "We buy roughly 1 percent of the cotton available in the world," says Letitia Webster, VF's senior director of sustainability. Her job is to both reduce the company's greenhouse gas footprint and reduce its risks from climate change.

"Some of the biggest impacts actually come from cotton," Webster says.

Cotton grows commercially in most countries around the world and is very resource-intensive to cultivate and process. On the one hand, agronomists say it's relatively hearty because it grows in hot climates. But its Achilles' heel is water. Cotton needs it for growing and processing, but too much water can also kill it.

Several years ago, bad weather events in China and Pakistan hit VF's cotton supply — and its bottom line. "So we actually do want to diversify; we want to make sure that we are insulated from some of that," Webster says.

VF is training 400 Chinese farmers to switch to new kinds of cotton plants that use less water. And Webster says VF's labs are also developing futuristic alternatives such as fibers grown from bacteria and adhesive fabrics that can repair themselves to improve a garment's longevity.

"I think in the aggregate, it is all about actually reducing risk, which actually does cost," Webster says.

Turning Bottles Into Yarn

One thing the company is doing today is increasing its use of recycled polyester fibers developed by a company called Unifi, which operates just 50 miles from VF's corporate headquarters in Greensboro, N.C.

Unifi rode the 1970s boom in polyester but, like many textile makers, lost business in the 1990s to cheaper international competition.

"We downsized to about 50 percent of what we were, but we were still losing money. So we really had to rethink our strategy," says Roger Berrier, Unifi's president and chief operating officer. "What we decided to do was look to innovation."

Seven years ago, Unifi sought to save itself some money by turning plastic waste like bottles and leftover polyester scraps into yarn. Plastic bottles are washed and chopped up into flakes, which then flow through machines that melt, extrude and spin them into a textured string the company calls Repreve. It closely resembles yarn.

Repreve costs a premium to produce, so for almost a year after development, it sat on the shelves without a buyer. Then things changed. Consumer interest in recycled goods picked up, cotton prices spiked, and companies like VF went looking for alternatives.

Now, Repreve is used in performance athletic gear, fleece jackets and backpacks. Demand is growing 20 percent a year. The Unifi plant has already expanded. Berrier says to secure a supply of used plastic, Unifi now funds campaigns promoting recycling.

"Our goal is to increase the recycling rate. So we have plenty of material available, which should reduce the cost," Berrier says.

Cost is a key issue. A fleece jacket made with Repreve uses no cotton, a lot less water and produces two-thirds less greenhouse gas than one made from unrecycled fabric — but it's also more expensive.

For now, VF is eating that extra cost.

"We can't charge more for the products right now; it has to be just baked in," Webster says.

It's all part of a costly upfront investment the company is making in order to attract consumers to the new alternatives.

Over time, Webster says, the company hopes to bring its massive scale to bear and incorporate cotton substitutes into more products as a way to both reduce the cost of the newer materials and shield VF from climate change risks.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk about something basic now - your clothes and what they're made of. The demand for cotton is on the rise around the world, but cotton producers are having a hard time keeping up with demand. They've been hurt by increases in extreme weather and drought. And that creates challenges for clothing makers, some of whom are looking to alternatives as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: VF Corporation is one of the biggest clothing companies you've never heard of. But its brands include Lee and Wrangler jeans, timberland shoes and The North Face. It also makes uniforms for police and major league sports teams.

LETITIA WEBSTER: So the VF is a large purchaser of cotton. We buy roughly 1 percent of the cotton available in the world.

NOGUCHI: Letitia Webster is VF's senior director of sustainability, whose job it is to both reduce the company's greenhouse gas footprint and reduce its risks from climate change.

WEBSTER: Some of the biggest impacts actually come from cotton.

NOGUCHI: Cotton grows commercially in most countries around the world and is very resource-intensive to cultivate and process. On the one hand, ergonomists say it's relatively hardy because it grows in hot climates. But its Achilles' heel is water - it needs it for growing and processing, but too much water can also kill it. Several years ago bad weather events in China and Pakistan hit Webster's company's cotton supply and its bottom line.

WEBSTER: So we actually do want to diversify. We want to make sure that we are insulated from some of that.

NOGUCHI: VF is training 400 Chinese farmers to switch to new kinds of cotton plants that use less water. And Webster says, VF's labs are also developing futuristic alternatives. Fibers grown from bacteria, for example, and adhesive fabrics that can repair themselves to improve a garment's longevity.

WEBSTER: I think in the aggregate it is all about actually reducing risk, which actually does cost.

NOGUCHI: One thing the company is doing today is increasing its use of recycled polyester fibers developed by a company called Unifi. Unifi is a polyester yarn maker that operates just 50 miles from VF's corporate headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina. Unifi rode the 1970s boom in polyester, but like many textile makers lost business in the 1990s to cheaper, international competition. Roger Berrier is president and chief operating officer for Unifi.

ROGER BERRIER: We downsized to about 50 percent of what we were. But we were still losing money. So we really had to rethink our strategy and so what we decided to do was look to innovation.

NOGUCHI: Seven years ago Unifi sought to save itself some money by turning plastic waste - bottles and leftover polyester scraps - into yarn.

BERRIER: So it starts from a bottle and the bottle is washed and then chopped up into these flakes.

NOGUCHI: At the Unifi plant these plastic flakes travel noisily through metal pipes. Machines melt, extrude and spin them into a textured string the companies calls Repreve that closely resembles yarn. Reprieve costs a premium to produce, so for almost a year after development it sat on the shelves without a buyer. Then things changed. Consumer interest in recycled goods picked up, cotton prices spiked and companies like VF went looking for alternatives. Now Repreve is used in performance athletic gear, fleece jackets and backpacks. Demand is growing 20 percent a year. The Unifi plant has already expanded. And Berrier says, to secure a supply of used plastic, Unifi now funds campaigns promoting recycling.

BERRIER: Our goal is to increase the recycling rate. So we have plenty of material available which should reduce the costs.

NOGUCHI: And cost is a key issue. A fleece jacket made with Repreve uses no cotton, a lot less water and produces two thirds less greenhouse gas than one made from un-recycled fabric. But it's also more expensive. Back at VF's headquarters, Letitia Webster says that for now the company is eating that extra cost.

WEBSTER: We can't charge more for the products right now. It has to be just baked in.

NOGUCHI: It's all part of a costly, upfront investment the company is making in order to attract customers to the new alternatives. Over a time Webster says, the company hopes to bring its massive scale to bear and incorporate cotton substitutes into more products. She says, that will both reduce the cost of the newer materials and shield VF from climate change risks. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.