Sleight of Hand

Written by:



The Touch, the Feel — but Not the Performance — of Cotton

The recent ruling by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to fine four retailers, including and Macy’s, for mislabeling textiles made from bamboo rayon as simply “bamboo,” underscores the seriousness with which the government is enforcing truth and clarity in labeling. Some onus, however, is also on consumers, some of whom are largely unaware of recent fiber substitutions in traditionally cotton-dominant apparel—a shift that can impact the care and thus, perceived value, of their purchases.


The ubiquity of cotton in apparel and home textiles has made it the fiber to beat, or at least the one to imitate. Manufacturers of synthetic fibers and some wood pulp rayons have become adept at duplicating the tactile softness long associated with cotton. To consumers, cotton is a known quantity, especially where the feel, or hand, and laundering are concerned. Many consumers have discovered, to their dismay, a sleight of hand in the form of fiber substitutions in traditionally cotton-rich apparel.

High cotton prices in 2011 resulted in some retailers and manufacturers substituting synthetics for cotton, or blending cotton with other fibers to keep margins in check, but consumers found the quality lacking. Sixty-three percent of consumers said they felt bothered that retailers and brands may be substituting synthetic fibers for cotton in their T-shirts, and the same percentage of consumers were bothered by the possibility in their denim jeans, according to Monitor data. Furthermore, consumers reported a willingness to pay more to prevent future fiber substitution; 56% said they would pay more to keep cotton from being substituted in their jeans and T-shirts. “Even though consumers’ quality expectations have remained historically consistent, they are not immune to price changes at retail; more than seven out of 10 consumers say clothing prices have increased from last year, according to Monitor data,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated.

\"IAdditionally, a majority of consumers say the clothing they purchased recently does not last as long as it used to, the fabric of their clothing is thinner than it used to be, and nearly half say clothing typically made with cotton is now made from other fibers.

“Given these changes, it is not surprising that 44% also say the quality of clothes they recently purchased has declined just from last year,” says Kitchings.

Post-recession consumers, though, continue to focus on price tags, since price has always been a key driver for purchasing decisions. In 2000, 58% of consumers reported purchasing clothing on sale, which increased to 68% in 2012. A look at 2012 holiday shopping behavior gives credence to this theory: 76% of consumers said they planned their holiday gift purchases this year, relatively flat from 2011, according to the Monitor. And 67% of consumers said they typically researched gifts online before buying in-store, while many consumers opted to reserve their shopping for major sales days like Black Friday (42%), Cyber Monday (41%), National Free Shipping Day (24%) and Thanksgiving Day (16%).

Price, however, is only one aspect of how today’s consumers perceive value. “While consumers accept that apparel prices are higher today than they were two or three years ago, they do not want to pay more for less,” says Kitchings.

One key component of the value equation is apparel longevity. Cotton fiber substitution and blending may have addressed one-half of the value equation, but fell short on the other half with the unintended consequence of complicating home care and laundering.


“Consumers get cotton; they understand how to wash and dry cotton garments,” says Vikki Martin, Director, Quality Research and Product Evaluation, Cotton Incorporated. “But high percentages of non-traditional fibers in items like t-shirts and denim, for example, must be cared for differently, which can ultimately affect longevity.” “Consumers are still very much price-conscious,” says Kitchings. “They may feel the item and check the price tag before they buy, but it’s only when they’ve brought the garment home and worn it when they realize they didn’t get what they expected.”

Unlike price, garment care is currently low on the consumer check list. Topping consumer concerns are fit (97%), comfort (95%), quality (92%) and price (92%). With equal value placed on quality and price, it is surprising that while 48% of consumers say they check the garment care label before they purchase an item, a full 43% say they do not check the garment care label until after they have worn
the item, according to Monitor data.

For retailers and brands, addressing the new consumer value proposition entails keeping one eye on pricing and the other on managing consumer expectations of quality and performance. Labels help, when they are read and when they are clear. “Not only does the word ‘Cotton’ on the fiber content label induce a feeling of trust and understanding, but the Seal of Cotton graphically conveys the fiber content, giving consumers a sense of confidence in their ability to care for the garment, based on experience and trust in the brand,” explains Kitchings. “More than eight out of 10 consumers recognize the Seal right away. A label that says ‘bamboo,’ or even ‘rayon from bamboo,’ is less clear.”

Emily Thompson is the Associate Director, Editorial at Cotton Inc., the research and marketing company
representing upland cotton. For more information on the Lifestyle MonitorTM Survey, please contact her at



Scroll to Top
the Daily Report

Insights + Interviews right to your inbox.