We all understand the basic principles of supply and demand. In a perfect world, the two work in balance, supply always meeting the demand, one never exceeding or disappointing the other. Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and as with any product driven business, there are occasional supply issues. Over the years, we have experienced one of those challenges with our lightweight cotton jersey.
In the past, we have struggled with stocking our lightweight cotton jersey in Black. It has been our most popular color, particularly for our Alabama Chanin Basics. And we’ve learned that the supply chain is not so simple. It’s actually quite complicated, so we asked Phillip Glover, Vice President of Green Textile, from whom we buy all of our cotton jersey, to answer a couple questions and help us better understand supply chain issues.
AC: Phillip, can you tell us a little about the difference between cotton designated for lightweight jersey and medium-weight jersey and why the supply of one is low while the other is not?
PG: The cotton used in your medium-weight jersey is called Upland Cotton, which has a shorter staple fiber This is used to create medium to coarse yarn sizes. The cotton used in the lightweight jersey is Extra Long Staple (ELS) Cotton, which by definition has a much longer staple fiber. This is necessary to produce finer yarn sizes. The supply difference is due to the greater amount of acreage planted with Upland Cotton as compared to ELS Cotton.
AC: Is cotton used for lightweight jersey more difficult to grow? Why?
PG: The primary issue is not the cotton, instead it is the fact that [since NAFTA was put into effect, we have lost many small spinning operations and] there currently is no domestic capability to spin fine yarns. The yarn required for the lightweight jersey is currently being shipped from overseas (where most of the world’s supply of organic cotton is currently being grown). Unfortunately, it can take up to 3 months just to get the yarn from the supplier. The current issue was exacerbated by the fact that when we finally did receive the last shipment of yarn, it didn’t pass our strict quality standards. Thus, we had to request new yarn which started the process over again.
Upland Cotton is by far the most common type of cotton planted in the United States, with roughly 8.81 million acres estimated to have been planted this year. In comparison, only 203,000 acres were planted with Extra Long Staple, or Pima Cotton – the kind used to make lightweight jersey. And both estimates have seen a 26.8% decline in acreage planted from 2012, according to a report published by the National Cotton Council earlier this year. We buy our cotton jersey in bulk every year, in part, to ensure our medium-weight jersey is grown in the U.S. The challenge falls on sourcing the high quality organic cotton we and our customers demand.
A greater challenge is the lack of resources in the United States for designers and manufacturers to produce their goods using organic, American-grown cotton. There are farmers growing Pima cotton, but, as Phillip mentions above, there are no spinners to turn the fine, long staple cotton into usable knit within the United States. The cotton must first be shipped overseas to be spun, then shipped back to the US, before it can be knit into fabric. This is an inordinately expensive process, not to mention the fact that the carbon footprint left by fossil fuels used in transportation is sizable, to say the least. The reasonable alternative is to buy Extra Long Staple cotton grown and spun overseas.
Our lightweight cotton jersey is certified organically grown, albeit not in our backyard, as we would prefer. However, our 100% organic lightweight jersey fabric is knit, dyed, washed, cut, and made into garments in the United States.
We asked Phillip what consumers might do to help remedy the supply issue. He responded there was nothing consumers could do. We aren’t ones to throw our arms in the air and cry Uncle, but what can we do? Surely the growing awareness over the negative impact fast fashion has on our collective lives has encouraged a greater interest, a greater demand, for slow design and environmentally sustainable products. When the demand is strong, the market usually answers. We would love to buy only cotton grown in the United States, to have that cotton spun by American businesses and knit and dyed by American businesses before arriving at our Florence, Alabama, studio where our garments are assembled by local artisans. Honestly, we’d love to see all that happen right here in Alabama.
Perhaps, in the way younger generations are leaving cities to pursue farming and homesteading lifestyles, we might begin to see those generations bring back lost and nearly extinct trades, like spinning, textile manufacturing, and dyeing. You could say it is part of our vision for the American textile industry.
In the meantime, we appreciate your patience while our supply chain slowly unkinks itself, and would like to remind you that all of our Alabama Chanin Basics are available in 100% organic medium-weight cotton jersey: knit, dyed, cut, and hand-sewn in the United States. And while we wait, we will continue to hope for the revival of spinning operations throughout the nation.