America Has One Of The Best Luxury Cotton Grown In The World
Quite often, I like to highlight the great significance that the US has on the world of fashion. When you think of all the developments created in our great nation such as the tuxedo, preppy, sportswear and even denim. Even though denim was invented in Europe it is our very own Levi Strauss that developed the fabric into a household name.
But what about farming crops for fashion and textiles? At present, there is a network of farms throughout the USA ( mostly in Arizona and New Mexico that grow a special type of cotton each year.
Founded in 1954, Supima is a non-for-profit organization that represents the Pima cotton growers of the United States. The Supima name was derived from a blending of the words “Superior” and “Pima.”The Supima brand designates an elite variety of pima cotton grown only in California and the Southwestern U.S. The cotton is highly valued not only for its superior strength but also for its soft to the touch feel. The extra long fibers create value and a strong point of difference at the point of sale.
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You see, Supima is a least twice as strong as regular cotton. This strength enables the cotton to resist pulling, breaking and tearing much more than the competition. More to the point, it is the competitive advantage that Supima has in the marketplace. In addition, Supima’s finer fibers absorb dye with a deep, long-lasting penetration. The result is a product that retains color better than regular cottons.
Today, Supima focuses on partnering with leading brands across fashion and home markets to ensure that consumers have access to and receive top quality products.
I recently had the pleasure to interview Supima CEO, Marc Lewkowitz about how Supima cotton growers seek to implement and utilize new technologies and practices in order to be the most responsible and efficient producers, having the ability to authenticate product and provide insight into the sourcing and supply chain is absolutely key to the future of textiles and about why farmers need to have the flexibility to pick and choose between the best and most efficient methods for growing their crop under the constraints and challenges of each unique crop year!
Joseph DeAcetis: Briefly, Talk to Forbes about the rich history (including WWII) of Supima cotton and how this cotton came to be in the USA?
Marc Lewkowitz: Early history reports that extra-long staple (ELS) cotton found its way to the USA back in the early 1600’s, landing in Virginia. Originally, stemming from the Caribbean Islands, the fiber thrived in well-draining, sandy soil along the coastline from southern North Carolina all the way to northern Florida. It was here on the barrier island chain along the eastern seaboard, known as the Sea Islands, where ELS cotton first made its home in the USA and adopted the name Sea Island Cotton. This premium cotton was grown here until the late 1700’s when pest pressures became too burdensome and reduced the crop yield potential to levels that were not viable at the time. About a century later and with a World War and a cotton embargo in place, the United States was in need of a premium quality cotton fiber for a variety of industrial purposes which included tire cording to be used in Goodyear tires. In 1900, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began breeding trials for American ELS cotton in Sacaton, AZ, just southeast of Phoenix. Those trials were conducted on lands owned by the Pima Indians and in recognition of their participation, the name Pima was adopted to identify Pima cotton and the first cultivars produced there. With the development of the fiber and the unique and exceptional fiber characteristics, the Pima name quickly became regarded internationally as an identifier for premium cotton. However, to ensure the authenticity around this special cotton developed in the USA, the growers founded the SUPIMA organization in 1954 under the original name of Superior Pima. Today the SUPIMA® trademark stands for quality and authenticity and is used by brands to identify premium quality products made with Supima cotton.
JD:Why is it important to you to produce cotton in the USA?
ML: Supima is grown by a few hundred family farms in the American West and Southwest. Many of these farms are multi-generation and the land represents the family’s capital and stake in their communities. Responsible stewardship of the farms is a foundational consideration for the farmers in ensuring viability of the soil and the farm. The growing region where Supima cotton is grown is also one of the most highly regulated agricultural communities where growers seek to implement and utilize new technologies and practices in order to be the most responsible and efficient producers in terms of producing the highest quality outputs while minimizing the utilization of resources. To achieve these goals Supima growers work hard to set a world standard in terms of quality, sustainability, traceability as well as labor and ethical compliance.
JD: Do you believe that. true transparency starts with the fiber?
ML: The answer starts with authenticity. Simply put, if you don’t know the ingredient materials and are unable to verify them, then there isn’t a lot that you can say about the product and what went into creating the base materials. Terms like transparency and traceability are generally used in the textile supply chain to indicate some generic insight into a product and its sourcing. However, without validation of the product, it leaves the transparency and traceability conversations without the ability to authentically reflect and substantiate the product. Having the ability to authenticate product and provide insight into the sourcing and supply chain is absolutely key to the future of textiles. The need for transparency applies not only to cotton but to all textile fibers. Where does the petroleum come from for polyester? Where do the trees come from for rayon? How are the sheep treated for the production of wool? You cannot make any claims about the sustainability of a product unless you can answer those questions about the fiber and raw materials.
At SUPIMA, we have invested a significant amount of time and resources to be able to authenticate and verify the cotton fiber itself through a forensic science based approach with our technology partner Oritain. By measuring the naturally occurring rare trace elements and isotopes in the areas where Supima is grown. Supima cotton can be verified at any point in the entire supply chain back to its origin and provide provenance. This process is unique and benefits from Mother Nature and the natural plant process while it is growing such that the fiber itself is used for verification without requiring the addition or utilization of external markers, taggants or identifiers.
JD: Name a few of the premium properties of long staple cotton fibers?
ML: SUPIMA, as an extra-long staple cotton, offers several benefits to the products in which it is used. The extra-long length of the fiber produces smoother, cleaner yarn which naturally provides a soft silky hand.
Supima is naturally stronger too. The fiber itself is twice as strong as regular cotton and was used first as an industrial fiber as cording in Goodyear tires at the beginning of the 20th century so, it is really tough. This makes products made with Supima long lasting and more sustainable with an eye towards discerning consumers looking to add quality pieces to their wardrobes. These are not disposable goods. Another benefit of Supima is the fiber’s fineness. These fine fibers are extremely ‘thirsty’ and deeply absorb dyes. This provides garments with bold lasting colors that don’t suffer from premature fading and unevenness.
JD: What are the benchmarks of Supima cotton in comparison to the competition?
ML: Most consumers think all cotton is the same but there are actually two primary distinct varieties. Regular cotton (Gossypium Hirsutum), and extra-long staple cotton (Gossypium Barbadense), which naturally produces a longer, stronger, and finer fiber. ELS cotton has a major impact on quality and performance of products that are made with it. SUPIMA is 100% extra-long staple cotton in contrast to other well-known cotton labels such as Egyptian or Pima that are colloquially used in the textile industry but do not substantively support anything having to do with the cotton fiber quality or authenticity that they are identifying. The SUPIMA® mark is entirely unique in the cotton textile segment representing both quality, origin and the responsibility of the industry built around it to provide the premium natural fiber resource for authentic quality products. To know SUPIMA is to love it.
JD:How does laser-leveling the cotton fields aide in maximizing water efficiency use
ML: 500 of our family farms in the American West and Southwest use a variety of methods to provide water to the crop. Whether it’s through flood irrigation or drip irrigation, farmers always use the most efficient ways to deliver water to their crops.
JD:As President and CEO, how to you force the use of GPS-navigated tractors, soil monitors and satellite technology as we progress into the future?
ML: Cotton is a complex crop that requires engaged management by the farmers. The output of fiber stems from the reproductive phase in the cotton plant. As cotton grows, like other plants, it produces seeds to propagate. To gain a distribution advantage cotton plants produce a pure cellulosic fiber from the seed that is intended to help the wind carry the seed once the cotton bolls open to support distribution of cotton seed to a greater area. This pure cellulosic fiber is what we refer to today as “cotton”. Besides the intrinsic agronomic aspects of cotton production, every farm is different in terms of the geography, weather conditions, and soil types, and all of these have a continual impact on cotton farming operations within a crop year and from year-to-year. Because farms are so diverse and must manage so many operational and farming variables, there is no single methodology. Farmers need to have the flexibility to pick and choose between the best and most efficient methods for growing their crop under the constraints and challenges of each unique crop year. Farmers of Supima cotton use the most advanced technical and operational practices that are appropriate to the needs of their farm. Whether it’s technology like GPS driven tractors, or satellite imagery for crop and farm monitoring, there are an unprecedented number of tools that our farmers employ to keep their soil healthy while producing the best quality cotton in the world.