Unraveling the Mystery of Egyptian Cotton

September 26, 2016

Unraveling the Mystery of Egyptian Cotton

Like so many products in the bedding industry, we once again find ourselves enamored with a term that has come to define the gold standard of bedding sheets: Egyptian cotton. But does the label really translate to a better product?

Egyptian cotton sheets have been making headlines for years, and not for their unparalleled comfort.  In August of 2016, Target pulled 750,000 Welspun sheets that were supposedly premium-priced Egyptian Cotton because testing revealed that they were made from other material. Target’s severed relationship with Welspun resulted in a drop of $90 million in annual sales, about 10% of it’s annual revenue. Retail giant Walmart also recently announced that they were removing the popular bedding item from from their inventory over the quality deception.

So, why the smoke and mirrors? Why label something “Egyptian cotton” when it’s clearly not?

I took to the store to find out.

I started my search at Target, one of the largest retail stores in the US. The bedding section has a huge selection and I was really overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “Egyptian” cotton items. I couldn’t help but wonder what makes it so different. No matter where I look, Egyptian cotton tops the must-have list. Research says that I’m in for “comfort like I’ve never felt before” and “you’ll never go back!”.  But when I actually felt the fabric in person, I was left wondering what all the talk was about.  I expected the sheets to feel softer than my Luxurious organic cotton set at home (especially when they cost 75% more).

Ultimately, my experience at the store left me with more questions.  Is Egyptian cotton just a bed of lies? I turned to the internet for more answers. 

What exactly is Egyptian cotton?

Egyptian Cotton just means cotton that has been grown in Egypt. That’s it.

It first appeared in 1818 after the founder of Egypt brought the crop in to make some extra money. The crop itself fluctuated with the world’s economy and eventually saw a lot of changes around 1952 during the revolution in Egypt.

What you need to know is that while Egypt still grows cotton today, it only accounts for less than 1% of global cotton supply, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Why do shoppers love Egyptian cotton?

Okay, so if the supply is going down why do you do you see Egyptian Cotton advertised on every bedding aisle? If Egyptian cotton production is declining, then why do I see so many Egyptian cotton labels when I’m out shopping? Just walk into the bedding section of any Target or Bed Bath & Beyond like I did, and you’ll be overwhelmed with “Egyptian cotton” sheet selections. If Egypt is only ranked 30th in the world for cotton production, how are there so many products for sale?

Well, we know why they buy them. Consumers buy products with the label because they have cache. They mean comfort, softness, and durability- everything you want in a sheet. But how did we get here? Why do we think luxury when we hear Egyptian cotton?

The crop itself was first grown in Egypt near the Nile River because the area was really fertile, the perfect place for growing long staple cotton.

And that’s really what it came down to. Long staple cotton is the specific type of cotton that gives sheets their soft and strong qualities and gave Egyptian cotton the reputation they have today. That was great when actual cotton sheets were being produced in Egypt, but today the demand for long staple cotton is pretty small.

“Not all Egyptian cotton has long fibers and not all long-staple cotton comes from Egypt. In fact, farmers there are decreasing the acreage devoted to producing it, because the demand for shorter staples is so much higher. In the past year, Egyptian cotton production has plunged more than 50 percent in response to changing government policies, with almost all of the lost acreage formerly devoted to long-staple crops.” (Bloomberg)

Egyptian cotton production is declining

Why the dramatic shift? Egyptian cotton seemed like a pretty good deal a long time ago and Egypt’s economy benefited from the crop for decades. But it doesn’t really exist anymore because here’s the uncomfortable truth: the quality of Egyptian cotton seeds have been deteriorating for years. A lot of people blame the Egyptian government for its regulations on the crop. Farmers claim that they just don’t make enough of a profit on cotton anymore to justify dedicating a lot of land to it.

“The lack of areas planted in cotton led to lower productivity — which in turn led to the decrease of the exports — while the value of the Egyptian cotton depreciated even in the local market.’ ...The areas planted in cotton dropped from 3 million acres in the 1960s to 180,000 acres in 2015 and then to 90,000 acres this year with 30,000 acres allocated for obtaining seeds.” (source)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), U.S. exports of lint cotton to Egypt has increased by 30 percent in the past year to help Egyptian textile manufacturers meet demand.

Bottom line: Egyptian cotton is not the cotton it once was.  

Fakes and Knock-Offs

Lower quality but higher quantity? The math doesn’t add up. And people are starting to catch on.

As I mentioned above, Target (the second largest discount retailer in the US) has canceled orders worth upwards of 90 million dollars from the brand Welspun- and that sum is rising as other retailers (like Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond) follow suit. Why? Because Welspun sheets labeled as 100% Egyptian cotton, aren’t.

To solve the knock-off crisis, a lot of companies are investing in DNA testing to prove that they’re in compliance with all laws and selling pure products to their customers.

But that also begs the question, why do we even have to go so far as to genetically test our textiles, if we have Luxurious organic cotton readily available?

Organic cotton sheets: the natural choice

Fact: It doesn’t matter where your cotton was grown.

What set Egyptian cotton apart from competitors decades ago was its long staple cotton, not its country of origin. It doesn’t matter if your cotton was grown in Egypt, India, or the United States as long as the quality is pure and farmed with care. Today, you don’t have to settle for the uncertainty of Egyptian cotton to get the type of comfort you dream about. Luxurious Organic cotton sheets offer the same, if not better comfort and construction. Why should you reach for (or click to buy) Luxurious organic cotton sheets the next time you’re shopping?

Conventional cotton farming destroys the environment

Unless it’s labeled as “organic”, Egyptian cotton farming uses pesticides and insecticides for pest control. And it’s out of hand. Cotton uses uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of all pesticides, on 2.5% of agricultural land. That’s an outrageous proportion. When applying the pesticides, some of the chemicals are blown away onto the land and into the soil or into a nearby stream of water. Think about the ecosystems inside of that body of water and what happens when they ingest foreign and dangerous chemicals.

If you want to curl into soft, snuggly sheets at the end of the night, just do your research. Know what you’re buying. Luxurious Organic cotton sheets offer not only a great night’s sleep at a reasonable cost, but an impact that’s priceless.


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