In the world of cotton, Supima exists at the luxury level. Pima grown in the United States is exclusive, representing less than 1% of the cotton produced worldwide. And the properties of the Pima plant – Gossypium barbadense – create extra long cotton that is high quality, extremely soft and incredibly strong.
On the last day of the Supima Harvest Symposium in November, speakers provided tips on how to market and talk about Supima cotton, focusing on what makes Pima different.
For brand partners, an added benefit of Supima is the ability to tell an engaging fiber story. “Supima is made in the USA, sustainably grown, traceable and the ultimate luxury cotton option,” said Hampton Carney, managing partner and CEO of Paul Wilmot Communications, which represents Supima. “When you use Supima, you can have confidence in your communication strategy.”
The first commercial crop of American Pima cotton was grown in 1912, following a breeding program by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Pima tribe. But the roots of long-staple cotton in the United States go back further. From the 1790s, Sea Island cotton was grown in the colonies of the American Southeast. Due to pests, production stopped in the early 1900s and Pima entered the market soon after. Since Pima plants require an arid climate, today they are grown in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.
Supima, the organization promoting American Pima cotton, dates back to 1954. The name Supima combines “superior” and “Pima”, positioning the fibers as first-rate.
To qualify as Pima cotton by USDA standards, the fibers must be at least one and three-eighths inches long. In order to protect the fiber lengths, the pima cotton lint must be separated from the seed via the gentler process of roller ginning, rather than saw ginning. On average, Supima fibers are 35% longer and 45% stronger than conventional cotton. “The quality [of Supima cotton] every year seems to get better and better. Length is a big part of what makes products perform the way they do,” said Jason Thompson, Brand Development Manager at Supima.
Whether consumers are buying towels or t-shirts, Thompson noted that color is often what draws them to a particular product. Supima has finer fibers that absorb and hold color better than shorter staple cotton fibers, preventing fading and running. The longer fibers also provide tensile strength. In fact, during wartime in the 20th century, Pima cotton was used for functions such as tire cording, airplane fuselages, and parachutes.
Supima’s current advertisement advertises the “beauty, function and feel” of fibers. Thanks to collaborations, including its Supima Design Competition in partnership with major fashion schools and an alliance with the Hyères fashion and photography festival, Supima is positioned within the fashion industry as a premium ingredient for luxury fashion and house brands.
Pricing & positioning
Today, Supima cotton commands a price premium, but this is not a new concept for long-staple cotton. In a record 1828 transaction, two bales of Sea Island cotton were sold for $2 a pound.
Like the rest of the cotton industry, Supima has seen a recent price spike as demand has picked up after a decline in 2020. “I think [the recovery] came faster than anyone anticipated,” said Dr. Jody Campiche, vice president of economics and policy analysis at the National Cotton Council. “What we’ve seen in relation to that is an increase in cotton prices around the world.”
People are buying property again, especially in the home category. But as Warren Shoulberg, editor of Home Textiles Today, noted, unlike synthetics, it’s not possible for a cotton supplier to increase production simply by adding a mill change – there’s a specific amount of available fibers and fabrics. According to Campiche, the 2020/21 U.S. cotton harvest was below average and the 2021 harvest was later, leading to shortages.
“If industries are going to have problems, having too much demand is a good thing to have,” Shoulberg said.
Supima’s production volume has been declining over the past four years, from around 850,000 balls to around 350,000 balls in 2021. This trend started with the trade war between the United States and China, and the problems of water have also contributed to reducing the years of production. Marc Lewkowitz, Chairman and CEO of Supima, expects 2022 to plateau, with numbers remaining close to 2021 numbers.
Rising demand coupled with transport delays have made cotton harder to find. Before the pandemic, J. Hilburn was forecasting “aggressive growth” after a strong 2019 and had stocked up on fabric. This reserve of textiles has allowed it to avoid supply shortages so far. However, J. Hilburn COO Joe Dixon expects to face higher prices and longer delivery times for future seasons.
J. Hilburn’s model is made to order, which allows it to avoid inventory problems. “Just stuffing products into the four walls of a store and hoping someone comes along and finds their size is really an outdated proposition,” Dixon said. The brand also focuses on full-price conversions, with minimal promotional activity. Dixon sees stock-outs giving retailers an opportunity to convince shoppers to pull the trigger at full price because goods could be out of stock when they return.
Lewkowitz pointed out that prices — from raw cotton to finished goods — have often been lower than necessary to sustain everyone from growers to manufacturers. He expects the $40 sheet set’s days to be numbered because he can’t afford the supply chain costs.
“People spent a lot more time in their homes, in their bedrooms, living in their homes, and they started investing in and appreciating the quality of the products,” Lewkowitz said. “And now there’s this huge opportunity for better messaging, better authenticity, better sustainability efforts through understanding the supply chain and investing in those products that can help get that message across to the consumer.”
Click on here to learn more about Supima. To learn more about the history of Supima cotton, the organization’s marketing efforts, and the outlook for the cotton industry, watch the Supima Harvest Symposium on demand here.