If you could cite one culprit creating cotton’s current challenges in the apparel market, you could very easily point to the recent fashion trend that favors lightweight yoga pants over denim.
“This is a real problem for cotton,” says Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion group that is funded by U.S. cotton producers and by imports of cotton products to the United States.
“Women are now wearing more yoga pants. The problem for cotton is twofold. These yoga pants contain more synthetic fiber than denim and more fiber goes into denim than yoga pants. Even if you had 100 percent cotton yoga pants, we’d rather see the denim market going strong because more weight goes into those products,” Worsham said.
Over the past couple years, sales of denim, the biggest user of cotton, have dropped while sales of yoga pants and other active wear have grown. Most active wear is a big user of polyester and other synthetic fibers.
Worsham’s comments came during the Southeast/Mid-South Young Guns Tour of Cotton Incorporated’s headquarters in Cary, N.C. During the tour, roughly 40 young cotton producers, in their 20s and 30s, from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia saw first-hand how their cotton research and promotion checkoff dollars are being spent.
Cotton farmers pay an assessment of $1 per bale plus one-half of one percent of the value of the bale to fund Cotton Incorporated. U.S. importers of cotton goods also fund the work of Cotton Incorporated. The program is administered by the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. which conducted the “Young Guns” tour. Cotton Incorporated’s budget is $76 million this year, down $4 million from 2015.
Despite the challenges, cotton is still the No. 1 fiber for apparel at retail, although cotton’s market share has declined over the past several years. Over the past 12 months, cotton’s share of the apparel market was 52.5 percent, according to Cotton Incorporated.
Cotton’s decline in share began in 2008 after enjoying years of robust gains since the mid-1980s when cotton’s share was just 43 percent of the apparel market. Cotton’s strong market gains continued until 2007 when the natural fiber controlled an impressive 62 percent of the apparel market. A major drop in cotton’s share occurred during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 which dropped demand for all textile fabrics, according to Worsham.
“We had a recovery in 2010, but during that recovery is when cotton prices went to $2 per pound, making cotton more than twice expensive as synthetic fibers. That caused a massive drop in share. Demand dropped in the next couple of years. We’ve seen a recovery, but it’s been kind of slow. We’re still not where we were before.”
Stabilize market share and focus on active wear
Worsham hopes cotton’s share of the apparel market will stabilize at 52 percent and that efforts will work to move cotton’s share upwards again. Overall economic growth in the U.S. is critical for future gains, he said.
“There are challenges but opportunities as well,” Worsham emphasized.
To further build cotton’s market share, Cotton Incorporated is now focusing on the active wear market that is a stronghold for synthetic fibers. “We’re looking for ways cotton can be more effective in that market,” Worsham said. “We have some new technology adoptions and developed some new technologies integrated into those fabrics. The whole idea is to influence that market to at least consider cotton.”
Cotton Incorporated in informing the trade that cotton can be a technology fiber as well. “We want to make sure people understand that cotton is not old and outdated; we are continuing to innovate This is important for markets like active wear where we are putting some additional resources behind,” he said.
Cotton Incorporated is enhancing its social media presence to reach consumers over more expensive television advertising, although advertising is still a key part of the group’s marketing strategy. “This is important because we don’t have the dollars available to us to do as much television advertising as we did 10, 20 years ago,” Worsham said.
“Our new campaign, which started a year or so ago, is called ‘It’s your favorite for a reason.’ That’s a slight change from ‘Fabric of our Lives’ which is still the overreaching theme of our campaign,” Worsham said. “We’re trying to give consumers a more specific reason why cotton is the fiber of choice. We’re using the entire digital ecosystem, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and paid search media with Google.”
In the campaign, consumers, rather than celebrities, talk about their favorite cotton item and how that item makes them feel.
To further reach consumers looking for active wear, Cotton Incorporated uses paid advertising on Google. For example, when a consumer googles “best yoga pants,” the Fabric of our Lives campaign will pop up on the first page with suggestions for cotton yoga pants.
Despite the challenges, consumer demand is still strong for cotton. In fact, Cotton Incorporated conducted a survey of the textile trade in 2015 that show 68 percent of the industry globally said they plan to use more cotton in 2016. Of that 68 percent, 60 percent cited consumer demand as the top reason, Worsham said.
“Consumer demand is still the most important component and that’s why you have to make sure that consumers still believe that cotton is a good thing, a viable choice in products today,” Worsham said.