Cotton continues to face unrelenting competition from synthetic fibers. Cotton Incorporated is trying to increase market shares in traditional markets, while looking to other markets where cotton is usually not the first fiber of choice.
Cotton Incorporated, which is funded by U.S. upland cotton growers and importers of cotton and cotton textile products, conducts research and marketing to improve the demand and profitability of cotton. On June 14, the Cotton Board, which administers the cotton research and program, conducted its inaugural Women in Agriculture Tour where women who work in the cotton industry toured Cotton Incorporated’s Cary, N.C. research facility and heard presentations by Cotton Incorporated officials on the continuing challenges facing cotton in the textile industry and steps the company is taking to ensure upland cotton remains competitive.
Kim Kitchings, Cotton Incorporated vice president of corporate strategy and program metrics, told the 64 women from 16 of the 17 cotton producing states, that cotton has seen a significant drop of 10 percent in the apparel market over the past few years. She said this represents about 30 million bales over a decade.
“This is important and we take it very seriously,” Kitchings said. “We are working to regain that share but the trend to leisure wear, or the use of athletic wear in every day wear, is a challenge for cotton. Now, consumers, instead of wearing khakis or Dockers, are wearing yoga pants. Some of this is friendly to cotton and some of it is not. But we want to make sure it becomes friendly to cotton.”
Another big challenge for cotton was the collapse in oil prices last year which also meant that polyester prices dropped since polyester is derived from oil, Kitchings said. While cotton prices have fallen, polyester prices has fallen even more and synthetic fibers continue to be less expensive than cotton.
“That’s not good when retailers and brands are looking at their margins. They tend to make more money when they substitute polyester for cotton. We want to give them every reason, every advantage not to do that. We continue to show that consumers demand cotton in the marketplace.”
Mark Messura, Cotton Incorporated senior vice president of global supply chain marketing, said the challenge for cotton in the textile business is that cotton is “a natural fiber but not a natural choice” for manufacturers.
“In manufacturing, you want a consistent ingredient. Cotton is not that,” Messura explained.“Cotton is great for a whole lot of reasons, primarily because consumers who wear it know it and love it, and that’s a message we keep promoting. But from the manufacturing side, when it comes to making clothes or towels or bedding sheets or other types of products, cotton is not the first choice.”
Messura said even the best textile mills in the world throw away three to eight percent of a bale of cotton even when they paid for a full bale due to short fibers and other defects, while every single fiber in a bale of polyester or nylon is used with zero waste.
“We grow a great product, but we have to work hard to sell that product and influence more manufacturers to use cotton,” he said.
In its work with manufacturers and retailers, Cotton Incorporated demonstrates how they can do something different with cotton. For example, trans dry technology allows moisture to move away from the body in clothing, which ensures greater comfort. Cotton Incorporated licenses manufacturers to use trans dry technology for free, but they have to agree to use cotton, Messura said.
Denim remains one of the most important markets for cotton, representing one out of every five pounds sold at retail. To continue to develop the denim market, Cotton Incorporated has adapted water repellent denim that allows denim to both breathe and be water repellent. “This allows cotton to stay competitive in this category by offering something new,” Messura said.
Another market where cotton’s share is low but the potential is huge is non-wovens, which includes diapers, disposable cleaning wipes and feminine hygiene products. “The Seal of Cotton is very important for these products,” Messura added. “The Seal is well recognized by consumes and we transfer that over to these products as a positive perception for cotton.”
Through it all, efforts must continue to build cotton’s market share in both traditional and non-traditional markets, Messura stressed.
“Cotton needs to strategically diversify,” he said. “We have to get cotton in a whole range of products, not just denim, not just menswear. We have to be in a lot of different things so that when the market goes up or down, we’re protected and have diverse demand for cotton.”
Agricultural research is also a critical part of Cotton Incorporated’s work with the company seeking ways to help cotton farmers with profitability squeezes, said Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural research.
“There are three agricultural commodities that have a petroleum alternative, corn ethanol, soy biodiesel and cotton, with polyester,” Hake said. “That means we are particularly vulnerable to consumer whims.”
Hake said consumers need to understand that modern cotton production is sustainable and Cotton Incorporated continues to educate them on this. “We continue to shrink our footprint per pound of cotton. Farmers get more yield per acre with less water. They are hyper efficient. Conservation tillage, minimum tillage, no till and strip till have created a lot of benefits,” he said.
However, to remain competitive to synthetics, cotton farmers must stress quality.
“On a long term basis, the quality of your cotton determines what can be done with it,” Hake added. “Textile companies can do a lot more if you give them high quality cotton. Pima still sets the bar, but Upland cotton breeders have done an outstanding job the past 10 years in making Upland cotton varieties available to farmers that are moving that bar up getting closer and closer to Pima.”