Textile mill CHINA FOTOPRESS/GETTY IMAGES
"U.S. cotton just keeps getting beaten up by synthetics," says cotton analyst O.A. Cleveland, Jr. "That’s where we need to focus: What can we do to regain market share for cotton?”

‘Polyester has bitten cotton in the behind’

"“We’ve sat back and allowed polyester to take over and define sustainability,” says cotton analyst O.A. Cleveland, Jr. "Whoever heard of a petroleum, acid-based fiber being sustainable while cotton is not?”

Polyester is a dirty word for Dr. O. A. Cleveland, Jr. He wryly recalls that his daughter-in-law was somewhat miffed at him because he wouldn’t wear “the fancy 100 percent polyester shirt she gave me for Father’s Day.

”It cost $75 and some-odd cents,” the veteran cotton analyst told those attending the joint annual meeting of the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corporation and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation Cotton Policy Committee. “It felt like linoleum, and I knew it would lose its color, or the fibers would snag.”

The shirt, says Cleveland, Mississippi State University Extension economics professor emeritus, is yet another symbol of how man-made fiber has increasingly edged cotton out of the fashion arena. “Cotton continues to lose market share. We just keep getting beaten up by synthetics. That’s where we need to focus: What can we do to regain market share for cotton?”

Fast fashion “is beating cotton to death,” he says, “and something needs to happen to counteract this.” Fast fashion, he explains, is a term for apparel designs that move rapidly from concept to retail, often in as little as two to four weeks.

“Most of us know a fashion market with four seasons. Today, with fast fashion based on polyester, there are many changes in a year. They can do this because polyester is cheap and doesn’t last as long as cotton, so they can keep cranking out new things as quickly and as cheaply as possible. This has really bitten cotton in the behind.

“The result: cotton continues to get beaten up in international trade — it’s been going on for 15 years. All importers are bringing in polyester, even some cotton importers are bringing in more polyester than cotton.”

SEAN GALLUP/Getty ImagesHemp field

“In five to 10 years, I’m convinced that growing hemp will be legalized," says cotton analyst O.A. Cleveland, Jr.. "Once it can be grown and processed in the U.S., it will be more competitive for cotton than polyester. So, we need to be thinking 10 years down the road about things like this and how they will impact cotton.”

It’s also particularly galling in sports-happy cotton country, he says, that several Southeastern Conference universities have signed multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts for athletic team apparel that’s polyester or includes non-U.S.-grown cotton. Mississippi cotton producers have been less than overjoyed that apparel for its Land Grant university athletic teams is from a company that uses no U.S. cotton in those uniforms, supposedly because it uses only BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton that’s sourced as sustainable.

“We’ve sat back and allowed polyester to take over and define sustainability,” Cleveland says, “and the textile industry has bought into it 1,000 percent. Whoever heard of a petroleum, acid-based fiber being sustainable while cotton is not?”

“I was opposed to BCI initially — I didn’t think U.S. cotton growers should have to pay to get their cotton certified. But it’s the only certification program that has standing in the world market; they have the exporters, merchandisers, and big box retailers, and that’s where we have to get our cotton into. Until we do, we’ll continue to lose market share. It’s fairly clear it’s something we have to do.”

And down the road, Cleveland says, cotton may be facing another competitor in the fiber market, hemp, which has not been legal to grow in the U.S. for decades because of its similarity in appearance to marijuana. “In five to 10 years, I’m convinced that growing hemp will be legalized. Once it can be grown and processed in the U.S., it will be more competitive for cotton than polyester. So, we need to be thinking 10 years down the road about things like this and how they will impact cotton.”

 

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