Gaining the Upper Hand Over Polyester

Meandering for 652 miles through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, the Tennessee River is an ecological treasure. Scientists have dubbed it an “underwater rainforest” due to its unparalleled biodiversity. The river contains numerous fish, crawfish and mussels that are endemic only to its banks.

For these reasons, an October story published in National Geographic on the exceedingly high level of microplastic waste contained in the river was especially disheartening. The story contained revealing details.


Perhaps the most profound revelation was that plastics are posing serious environmental problems in freshwater systems and not just in the planet’s oceans, as many believed. The Tennessee River contained an “alarming” level of plastic debris, according to a recent study. And this inland waterway lies far from the deep-water oceanic areas that are famously plagued by plastic contamination.

But a second detail also highlighted a rarely talked about aspect of the global plastics debate. Though mentioned only briefly in the article, it appears that manmade fibers – and not just single use plastics such as water bottles, which many identify as the major cause of the problem – contribute to this troubling trend.

Jill Crossman, a hydro ecologist from the University of Windsor, told the National Geographic that microplastics can enter freshwater environments “through anything from large plastic discarded over the sides of boats to fibers from synthetic clothing that’s washed down drains.”

While concerning, the acknowledgement that manmade fibers are contributing to the looming global plastics crisis represents an opportunity for cotton. Headlines about the global plastic crisis are gaining traction and frequency. Surely cotton can capitalize on this moment?

Spreading the Message

“It’s cotton’s great hope,” says Ed Jernigan, CEO of Jernigan Global, a global supply chain manager, of the environmental advantages cotton has over its fiber competitors. “But it requires some bold action that nobody has been willing to talk about. Polyester has to be attacked.”

In Jernigan’s view, the environmental criticism heaped upon cotton production through the years – especially recently – has been misguided. Compared to its competitors, he says, there’s no contest. Cotton is the superior option.

“Cotton has a strategically major advantage, even though it’s been beaten up by people talking about using water and resources,” he says. “At the same time, cotton farmers should hold their heads high, because environmentally speaking, the damage done by manmade fibers when it’s produced, when it’s washed and when it’s thrown away is so enormous.”

It’s impossible to argue Jernigan’s point about the after-use damage caused by manmade fibers. PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, is the name of the plastic material that is used in plastic bottles, jars and containers. When used in clothing, the same material goes by another name – polyester. A 2011 study found that 85% of the human-made material found on the world’s shores were microfibers – the kind commonly used in nylon and acrylic clothing.

“Plastics get the headlines, but polyester is behind it,” says Jernigan. “Cotton is the natural alternative. It biodegrades, does not have the same microfiber sheds, does not pollute our water supply.”

Ecologist Mark Browne authored that 2011 study, and went on to approach several major outdoor clothing brands about supporting his research on their products. Brands like Nike, Polartec and Patagonia declined to support the study – the latter saying they didn’t find his research conclusive.

“Perhaps it’s my pitch,” Browne told The Guardian in an article published in 2014. “We want to look for new, more durable materials that do not emit so much microplastic.”

This, Jernigan says, is where cotton’s advocates and associations need to be shouting from the rooftops. Cotton, as a natural fiber, simply does not cause the post-use problems that manmade fibers do. Put simply, cotton biodegrades. Its manmade competition does not.

Even beyond that very basic, vital point, cotton still has a strong story to share when it comes to production. Farming practices – in the developed world, especially – have become increasingly environmentally sound.

“In the United States, Brazil and Australia – the cotton farmers are the most environmentally friendly in the world,” Jernigan says. “Those growers in those countries are environmental stewards. You compare that to what goes on in the manmade fiber industry, there is no discussion.

“And so cotton’s day of not standing up for itself are over. We should be unabashedly saying to the world ‘We are the natural alternative.’”

That action – spreading the message about cotton’s environmental advantages – has not been executed as well as it should be, according to Jernigan.

“The consumer has only been lightly educated on these facts,” Jernigan says. “Consumers, as a rule, don’t know all of this.”

Cotton’s advocates such as Cotton Incorporated have been left to do the heavy lifting on this messaging. Jernigan and other industry analysts are eager for others to join the fight. In addition to consumers, the messaging should be targeted at retailers as well.

It is a mistake, Jernigan says, for cotton to try and compete on pricing with polyester, which can be subsidized and sold at significantly lower cost. “You’re never going to win that battle.”

“Fiber companies, they mostly encounter cotton at a fabric level,” says Jernigan. “So, what happens is cotton has not proven itself as an alternative to some of these products.”

In the athletic apparel and outdoor apparel markets, cotton is often passed over for manmade materials that consumers believe will perform better. Jernigan says cotton must market itself better and provide alternatives made from higher-quality cotton – which can compete and win against manmade fabrics. And, he says, the environmental messaging could be what puts cotton over the top.

“If you look at one of the most successful things going on, its Supima,” he says. “Why? Because it’s a superior product and it makes a 100% polyester shirt look pathetic. It’s different, but it’s superior and so it is sought out by the consumer. So cotton can compete and win, but we have to educate the public on what that looks like.”

Field to Closet

Through a partnership with Deltapine, Jernigan is doing more than rabble rousing on this issue. His program, Field to Closet, sets out to engage brands and retailers about the advantages cotton has over manmade fibers – both environmentally and in performance.

“It’s about introducing Deltapine cotton to brands and retailers,” he says. “It’s also giving brands and retailers a solution to using cotton in the supply chain. And it focuses on the importance of cotton fiber quality – in other words, showing the ability of using higher quality cotton and using it in place of manmade fibers.”

Traceability plays a major role in the Field to Closet program. Jernigan provides brands and retailers the ability to know exactly where their cotton came from – American farms – and exactly how it was produced. That is a major factor in highlighting the environmentally sound production practices of American farmers.

“I want retailers to know the role that the American cotton farmer plays in that product,” Jernigan says. “This is their livelihood at stake, and they’re battling. They need to be involved.”