Cotton industry becoming aggressive overseas

Seven out of 10 bales that U.S. cotton growers produce this year will wind up in a garment made overseas.

As few as six years ago, U.S. textile mills used 11.3 million bales of the U.S. crop, while consuming 7.5 million bales of foreign-grown lint. The 2003 projection shows an about-face of the statistic. U.S. cotton will account for 7.5 million domestically while 10.8 million bales could go to foreign mills. The domestic use numbers could go lower, experts say.

Speaking to a group of cotton producers in Raleigh, N.C., J. Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated, said the dynamic suggests, "We have to be more aggressive overseas."

He points to a strong dollar since 1997 as one of the primary causes of the decimation of the U.S. textile industry. More than 100 mills have gone out of business in the last two years, the most recent being Pillowtex.

"Ten years ago, two-thirds of our cotton was consumed by U.S. textile mills. More and more our program is looking at textile mills in other countries," Worsham says.

"We have to recognize that the U.S. market has changed," Worsham says. "Twenty years ago we would work with textile mills and go up to the manufacturer and retail. Today, the power is with the retailer.

"Cotton Incorporated has found that taking our service farther downstream and bringing the retailer into discussions about the new technology that can help them come up with new products benefits the industry as a whole," Worsham says. "We’re still calling on our textile mills, but we have to recognize that the domestic industry is just going to absorb so much cotton."

Worsham cites examples such as working with retailers on stain-protection garments and with foreign mills on using the EFS System.

The new dynamic involves making the use of U.S. cotton in foreign mills a perquisite to using the EFS System developed by Cotton Incorporated, says Charles Chewning, Cotton Incorporated’s vice president of Fiber Management research.

The EFS system was developed in the late 1970s to provide the HVI data to define the quality of the U.S. crop. EFS software is unique to the U.S. crop, and provides on-line weekly updates of the crop quality. The USDA system currently operates data on 230 High Volume Instrument lines. This data helps build purchase and maintain a consistent mix of cotton quality.

Outside the U.S., mills use the ring system predominately as opposed to the open-end spinning. The ring system requires lower micronaire numbers. The quality that will be required for international markets will eventually mean U.S. growers will be required to produce lower micronaire, Chewning says.

At the core of the change is, "What we pay in an hour, Mexico pays its labor in a day. What Mexico pays in an hour Pakistan pays in a day."

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