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Op-Ed: Facing The New Challenges For Cotton

The textile industry has undergone enormous change in the past 10 years. Global trade in textiles was once regulated by high tariffs and a complex system of import quotes, but not anymore. Textiles used to be produced predominantly in the U.S., Europe and Japan, but not anymore. And textile mills used to dictate fashion, everything from fabric construction to fiber content, but not anymore.

Choice is a key word in textiles today, and so is variety. Today’s consumer demands choice and variety. Whereas in the old days textile mills could tell the consumer what to wear, that power has gradually transferred to the consumer—it’s what the consumer wants to buy that matters most, not what the mills want to produce.

The same holds true for cotton. Today’s consumer is looking for something new, something different. Growing any old cotton to meet the loan is not what today’s consumer is looking for. Variety—a choice of fibers—that’s what today’s consumer seeks. Quality is critical, but so is uniqueness.

And the organic movement is one example of uniqueness. Retailers like to show they’re “green,” that they use organic cotton in their clothing to distinguish their products from those of others, and consumers love it.

Today’s mill is looking for something new too, something to distinguish its products from another mill’s. Commodity production is a dead end, the beginning of a self-fulfilling spiral of cost cutting and lowering of quality standards. There will always be a market for junk, but today’s consumer increasingly wants something more.

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Mills, in turn, are impelled to respond—they adapt. They either go down market and try to survive at the bottom of the supply chain or they move up market stressing quality and value. More mills are opting for the latter by focusing on a wider variety of products, improving quality and providing better value.

Yet these changes are not without challenges. Despite all the progress the cotton industry has made in marketing its products, the it has still yet to compete with the synthetic fiber companies, which are terrific marketers as well. However, fiber companies aren’t limited by an industry-wide approach to selling its products. Virtually all fiber companies stress sales of branded products. This is an advantage as they can focus on attributes of their products to stand out from the competition.

It’s harder with cotton. Other than some sustainable production initiatives, the cotton industry has chosen to market its products in a broad sense, but by doing so, this has only reinforced cotton’s image as a commodity product. Cotton is just cotton – a sentiment heard up and down the entire textile supply chain. What distinguishes cotton from synthetics? Devising an answer to that question remains the challenge for cotton.

Ironically, both sides of the fiber business – cotton and synthetics – are moving closer in that each side continues to borrow characteristics from the other. Synthetics look to replace petrochemicals with natural alternatives, while cotton looks to incorporate new technologies to help to produce a more versatile product.

On the synthetic side of the equation, work has been conducted to replace petrochemical inputs with natural alternatives. Examples include corn, soy and milk derivatives. Efforts have also been made to change the age-old production of rayon to include new sources of cellulose from alternative forms of wood pulp. Most famously, bamboo was marketed as some new product, though it was found to be little more than reworked rayon. The point is: synthetic fiber companies have been, and will continue to be, aggressive in their research and use of alternative materials.

What about cotton? Seed companies have definitely upped their game in terms of quality and improving the characteristics of some varieties of cotton to be more attractive to spinners and textile mills around the world—cotton that’s stronger with a longer staple and greater uniformity. Mills around the world demand quality in their cotton as better cotton translates into better textiles, but better cotton also translates into lower production costs, saving mills time and real money.

For the cotton industry to prosper over the long run, developing new technologies will be essential. The market demands it and the cotton industry can deliver over time. Additionally, the cotton industry must focus on evermore-tailored marketing and educational campaigns. The best technology in the world can wither on the vine without strong marketing. Remember Betamax tapes?

I humbly suggest that the cotton industry needs to embrace new business models and not be fearful of changing its way of doing business just because that’s the way things have been done for years. Downstream customers are demanding more of cotton growers and fiber companies. Synthetic fiber companies are actively working to meet the challenge of the ever-changing marketplace. It is imperative for cotton to meet those challenge as well.

Remember wool? Today, wool is a relatively small percentage of the global consumption of all fibers. There was a time when that was not the case. Times changed, but the wool industry failed to adapt. Let’s not let that happen to cotton.

Finally, I recognize that fashion plays a central role in the use of fibers. For the moment, synthetics have gained market share; in the future, that may be different as cotton comes back into fashion.

Now is really the time for the cotton industry to adapt its approach to the needs of its customer base. Cotton may not be as fashionable as it once was, but prices are way down. Simple economics plays a role too: if cotton prices remain low, demand will return.

But as demand returns, I respectfully recommend that a new marketing message be adopted to propel cotton back into the minds of mills, brands and consumers around the world. Prices won’t remain low forever, but customers need to be reminded of the benefits of cotton and the limitations of alternatives.


By Robert P. Antoshak
Managing Director
Olah Inc.