Stephanie Silber---Source Bremen Cotton Exchange

A female voice for cotton

The Bremen Cotton Exchange has been safeguarding the interests of cotton for 148 years. Now, Stephanie Silber, CEO of cotton-trading company Otto Stadtlander, is the first woman to become president of this international raw-material association.

When the Committee for the Cotton Trade (Komité für den Baumwollhandel) was founded in 1872, the work of the Bremen Cotton Exchange (Bremer Baumwollbörse) revolved for many decades primarily around controlling the quality of imported cotton and ensuring contractually correct dealings in the cotton trade. Nowadays, however, the words ‘Cotton Exchange’ have nothing to do with arm-waving traders calling out numbers and dates. But that used to be the case: trading in cotton futures took place in the exchange building, apart from breaks during and after the two world wars, from 1914 to 1971.

Textile tradition: The world’s cotton threads have been coming together in the historic building of the Cotton Exchange at Marktplatz in Bremen for over 100 years / Source: Bremen Cotton Exchange

Textile tradition: The world’s cotton threads have been coming together in the historic building of the Cotton Exchange at Marktplatz in Bremen for over 100 years / Source: Bremen Cotton Exchange

Today, things are quieter there and, from its offices on the corner of Bremen’s Wachtstrasse and Marktplatz, the Cotton Exchange acts as a raw-materials association safeguarding the interests of its 140 members – dealers, banks, shipping lines, forwarding agents, spinners, weavers and insurance companies – around the world. For them, Cotton Exchange is an arbitration tribunal that settles differences of opinion when it comes to contractual issues or quality problems. Moreover, it maintains a comprehensive set of trade regulations and ensures adherence to the standards of quality for cotton. Thus, suppliers and buyers can have the cotton fibres tested in Bremen with regard to properties such as tensile strength, colour and fineness.

Cotton also badly hit by corona
Cotton is cultivated in over 70 countries worldwide, especially in the USA, India and China. In Europe, Spain and Greece are the major cotton players. Of the approximately 25 million tonnes produced annually, a large part goes into making garments, such as underwear, t-shirts and pullovers. However, seating upholstery, curtains and carpets are also made of cotton. But that’s not all: cotton is also to be found in technical textiles, as well as table and bed linen for hotels, bandages for use in hospitals and cleaning cloths.

This year, 2020, corona has also been the dominant subject in this highly globalised sector. “Worldwide, around 150 million people depend on cotton for their livelihoods – from seed research, via cultivation, to processing”, says Stephanie Silber, CEO of cotton-trading company Otto Stadtlander and, since June 2020, honorary president of the Bremen Cotton Exchange. The logistics network has been particularly hard hit by the various shutdowns and lockdowns implemented from country to country. Cargo containers with bale goods were stacked in closed ports and, consequently, could not be transported for processing to the spinners, weavers and garment manufacturers. And many articles of clothing remained unsold in the shops because customers were unable to go shopping in the city centres.

Cotton is not for the virtual world
“It was a year of extraordinary challenges”, says Stephanie Silber. Worries about a drop in sales due to the pandemic resulted in numerous orders being cancelled. In March, adds Silber, the association was forced, “with a heavy heart”, to postpone the International Cotton Conference, which normally brings together over 600 representatives from all over the world in Bremen every two years. It is now scheduled to be held in the coming spring. However, it will be a digital event, which has not made the association’s president particularly happy: “For myself, I consider personal encounters and the exchange of ideas and information face-to-face to be particularly important.” Although the vaccine announcements offer hope, the return to normality is not proceeding apace. For example, container capacities worldwide are still very reduced, which makes transporting the cotton more difficult.

The fact is, whether as cottonseed oil in cosmetics, as fibres in pullovers, jeans or household cloths, cotton is not made for the virtual world. The qualities of this white, fluffy, candyfloss like plant – its wearing comfort, skin friendliness and low allergy potential – only become apparent in the real world. In this connection, the natural fibre has clearly profited from the mega-trends of recent years, such as sustainability and the demand for organic clothing. Buzzword: favourite item instead of fast fashion. “Although cotton is thousands of years old, it is still absolutely modern”, says Cotton Exchange President Silber. Although there are no exact figures, the sector has noticed that the fibre is in line with zeitgeist trends as shown, for example, by the increase in demand for organic cotton. Fun fact: consumers who pay in cash for their clothing purchases exchange cotton for cotton. From twenty to two-hundred euro notes, the natural fibre is part of them all.

Desert plants with good osmoregulation
Despite its long history of cultivation, this plant of the malvaceous family is also subject to criticism. In many cases, complaints are made about its excessive water consumption. According to certain sources, over 20,000 litres of water is required for a kilo of cotton. “That’s really exaggerated”, says Silber and points out that cotton is a desert plant that is used to surviving with little water. “The more water it gets, the more fibres it produces.” According to Silber, the average consumption per kilo of cotton is 1,214 litres. Moreover, countries such as Israel use high-tech solutions to regulate the irrigation: “Satellites monitor the water consumption of the plants and ensure they are only watered as necessary with drops of water delivered straight to the roots”, explains Silber.

The first woman to head the Cotton Exchange
Despite the debates about quotas for women, the fact that she is the first woman to become president of the almost 150-year-old organisation was initially of no importance for her. However, she has often been asked about this since being elected, which is hardly surprising given that significantly fewer women than men are to be found in top-ranking positions and on the various bodies of the textile sector. “I want not so much to be remembered as the first female president of the Bremen Cotton Exchange but rather as someone who did a good job of work”, says Silber about the external impact of her election. Nevertheless, the growing number of inquiries had showed her that she was also seen as playing a model role. “Naturally, I am delighted if it offers encouragement to others with regard to their life choices and professional decisions in the future.” +++

Ronny Eckert

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