30. April 2024 / Question Time: Challenges and Opportunities for the „United Nations“ of Cotton

– Interview with Eric Trachtenberg, Executive Director, ICAC –

The International Cotton Advisory Committee is an association of members of cotton producing, consuming and trading countries founded in 1939. Eric Trachtenberg joined the ICAC as the new Executive Director in August 2023. In this interview with the Bremen Cotton Report, he talked about the mission of ICAC, current challenges of the cotton industry, and upcoming legislation.

How would you describe the role of the ICAC in the cotton world?

We are an intergovernmental organization with 27 member countries. For those that are not familiar with us, I think of ICAC as “the United Nations of cotton”. Since we report primarily to our member countries, our role is to help them to accomplish their goals regarding cotton. However, these goals differ between members. For example, in the big exporting countries, such as the United States, Brazil, or Australia, we look to support cotton in the global economy and to promote the truth that cotton is a global public good. For other countries, such as Bangladesh, there is a strong focus on textiles that connects to cotton. In Africa, there is strong interest in both cotton production and in moving up the value chain by processing some of the cotton they grow. Finally, in Europe, there is a strong focus on supporting sustainability, circular consumption, and improved environmental performance of the textile sector.

What is your mission as a new ICAC Director?

The mission of ICAC is to promote a healthier global cotton economy. To do this, we need to think of cotton as part of a system that goes from agricultural production to the final consumer. To support cotton more effectively, we are currently reimagining our work at ICAC.

We now think of cotton as part of a value chain. As part of this systems thinking, we are broadening our view beyond cotton production to work in textiles to better connect this sector to cotton. Sustainability, traceability, and engagement with the brands and retailers are also priority topics on our agenda. Finally, we also want to further amplify the important message that cotton is a global public good because of its ability to support livelihoods and improved environment outcomes.

We are also working very closely on regulatory issues since we are an intergovernmental organization that exists to serve our members and other cotton-related stakeholders. Our goal is to help our member countries to succeed in their goals in terms of regulation, whether that is agriculture, environmental policy, or textile sector development.

Quality data and reporting play a critical role in everything we do. We basically serve as a data provider for many others, including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Our history of being data-driven and avoiding spin is very important for everything else we do because it is a major reason why we can be trusted.

What are the main challenges for the industry at the moment? And where do you see opportunities?

Challenges and opportunities usually go together. The biggest challenge now is the loss of market share to synthetic fibers – which is now down to 22%. That is a challenge because synthetics are cheaper, and the fiber market is strongly driven by price. The cotton price challenge is connected to other issues, for instance, the fact that cotton is an agricultural product: Weather affects quality and quantity of production – and there is price volatility that can disrupt even long-standing business relationships. For example, every time there is a price spike, we risk losing market share.

The opportunities can be found from examining the root causes of why we are losing market share, and understanding what we can change. While we cannot do much about the price, we can improve the public perception of cotton by telling the truth about it. We can engage more with brands and retailers. We can work with researchers to find new uses for cotton and to increase its usability in a wider variety of applications. Our engagement on regulation can also enable cotton to compete in a competitive fiber market.

There is also a chance to build alliances with civil society and environmental groups because we have a great story to tell in terms of things like carbon sequestration. We are considering doing a carbon neutral village in India to see if the sequestration properties of cotton can put a whole community into carbon neutrality. That’s an opportunity with a potentially major impact on both poverty reduction and climate.

Cotton is grown in almost 80 countries around the world

As the governmental organization for cotton, how do you evaluate the current sustainability legislation that will affect the textile industry?

Because we are data oriented, it’s all about telling the truth. Cotton and other natural fibers and synthetics should be evaluated in a scientifically based way. We hope to see regulation that creates a level playing field based on facts and that can give cotton a chance to compete fairly. We believe that this can enable cotton to succeed.

As an intergovernmental organization, we strongly support our member governments in their goals, whether it is economic development, or in the case of the EU, it is developing regulations that help to accomplish their globally important environmental goals.

What do you think is needed from the industry to support cotton demand?

There are several things. One thing is fighting myths about cotton and changing the consumer perception. In richer countries the market share of cotton is always higher, and this is why marketing and engaging with brands and retailers is important. Ultimately, they have a huge amount of sway over what gets marketed, and what does not. But there is a share of the market which doesn’t want to be involved in generating micro plastics or in a high greenhouse gas impact or generating waste. Regulation could help in this, but also consumers that have a little bit more money to spend may be willing to support higher quality products that protect the environment.

Will there be a new focus of the work of ICAC?

We as an international organization must show value to every single one of our member countries. That is why we are now creating strong value propositions for every single one of our members. To the end, we are significantly increasing our training activities, country-based report, and will be holding regional meetings – with the first to be held on the margins of the International Forum for Cotton, Textiles and Accessories (FICOTA) in July in Cameroon.

In many countries, we will continue to do more in agricultural development. Cotton is responsible for the livelihood of 24 million farmers. If those farmers are hurt, a lot of poor people are suffering. This does not only deepen poverty but can also exacerbate extremism and uncontrolled migration. There are a lot of ramifications, but if you have a healthy and strong cotton economy, you can create quality jobs along the value chain and help some of world’s poorest people live better.

As one of the new things, we are now focusing more on textile development, especially for our African members. Since we are cotton-oriented, our goal is to encourage a textile sector that helps cotton. At the same time, we will deepen our work in sustainability and traceability to enable more farmers and others in the cotton value chain to benefit from the global cotton economy.

Thank you for the interview!

The interviews in the column “Question Time“ embody the opinion of the respective interview partner and do not represent the position of the Bremen Cotton Exchange as neutral, independent institution.

Click on the button to load the content from Google location map.

Load content