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Cotton Losing Share of Apparel Imports to Synthetics in 2014

Apparel made chiefly of synthetic fibers represents a growing share of year-to-date U.S. apparel imports in 2014 compared to 2013, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. government Office of Textile and Apparel.

Through September, man-made fiber apparel imports totalled $26.4 billion, or almost 43 percent of total apparel imports of $62 billion, a 9 percent increase over the first nine months of 2013. If the current growth trend continues through year-end, man-made fibers will have gained 2.4 percentage points of total apparel import share.

More than $11 billion worth of the man-made fiber apparel imports to the U.S., or 42 percent, have come from China, a 7.8% increase over the same period last year. Vietnam is the second largest source, at $3.4 billion year-to-date, up 21.4% from last year. Indonesia, Mexico and Honduras are the next largest sources of man-made apparel. 

Men’s knit shirts of chiefly man-made fiber have grown by almost 15 percent so far this year, to $2.5 billion, representing the fastest growing of the key import categories. Women’s knit tops have increased by 7.6% to $3.2 billion, and dresses are up  by 7.2% to $2.6 billion.

Year-to-date chief value cotton apparel imports total $31.7 billion, or 51 percent of total apparel imports, reflecting a 3 percent drop compared to the same period last year. Cotton is currently on track to suffer a 2.7 percentage point loss of apparel import share for 2014. 

China remains the largest source of cotton apparel imports, at $9.4 billion year-to-date, down 8 percent from the same period last year. Vietnam is the second largest source, at $3.4 billion, followed by Bangladesh at $3 billion. Cotton apparel imports from Vietnam have increase by more than 10 percent so far this year.

Cotton apparel categories that have seen big declines in dollar volume this year include women’s and girls’ pants, down 11 percent to $4.9 billion, women’s and girls’ knit tops, declining 4.6% to $4.9 billion,  cotton skirts, down 17 percent to $294 million, and bras and other foundations, down 26 percent to $90 million.

Initiatives put in place more than a year ago by retailers and brands to replace cotton with synthetics when cotton prices were sky high have been the driving force behind the shift. It remains to be seen, now that cotton prices have dropped significantly, whether the tide will turn. Polyester prices have been declining due to plummeting oil prices, which impacts synthetic fiber raw material costs.