Cotton Is No Longer King


Cotton is no longer king, not when its price per pound makes it more expensive than synthetic fibers. Rising cotton prices have caused apparel makers to manufacture clothing made with synthetic materials.

Melissa Lance of Virginia Beach, VA likes material that holds up well. For her, a blend that is comfortable and softer works best.

Chrissy Klementisz of Birdsboro, PA prefers fabrics that have both cotton and synthetic fibers. Such clothing lasts longer. She would rather wash and wear something than have to iron it.

According to the National Cotton Council, the shift toward synthetic fibers has accelerated. The movement away from cotton began during the financial crisis in 2008 when retailers had to cut costs or raise prices. They asked for and received synthetic blends. When cotton prices spiked in 2011, clothing manufactures continued using synthetic fibers over cotton. From 2007 to 2013, women’s and girl’s jeans and khakis sales rose 10 percent to 1.4 billion units sold. The overall cotton content found in the clothing had declined by seven percent.

Retailers selling on both high-end stores and the mass outlets have moved toward synthetic clothing. In 2014, the U.S. will have more clothing made from synthetic materials than cotton. Economics plays a factor in the move.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates global consumption for cotton will be 109.2 million bales. That makes for a 12 percent drop from 124 million bales in 2006. Cotton prices have increased from .51 cents a pound in 2009 to .93 cents a pound in 2013.

If cotton is still king, manufacturers and retailers no longer respect its royalty. More textile mills have reconfigured machinery to run synthetic fibers. The less expensive synthetic blends require less ironing and less cost for consumers.

Cotton traders say prices have remained high due to two factors. First, the Chinese have stockpiled the fiber. Beijing now wants to sell a portion of its cotton reserves. Second, the U.S. is the largest exporter of cotton. A bumper crop is expected in July. Should cotton prices begin falling, American farmers might turn to crops such as soybeans and corn.

Bob Grayson, the founder of Grayson Company, finds the trend to synthetic fiber as evolutionary. Technology impacts everything. Fashion is no exception.

Research from Euromonitor International U.S. confirms the shift. Synthetic clothing has grown by 14 percent since 2007. Cotton clothing increased in the apparel market by only 2.7 percent during the same period.

Steven Sare, Uniqlo’s chief merchandising officer, has found more jeans made of spandex, polyester, and cotton blends selling in Uniqlo stores. Ten years ago jeans were made predominantly of cotton. Now, the trend is more toward synthetic fibers. That trend has kept prices consistent.

Similar items made of cotton cost more. People do not know or care about the difference between cotton and synthetic blends. They first notice price. Will it last longer? How much will clothing wrinkle in the dryer? Consumers no longer wear the same cotton fibers their parents and grandparents did. If cotton is no longer king, synthetic fibers have replaced it.

By Brian T. Yates

Wall Street Journal
Hindu Business Line

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