The US still maintains over 60% market share of cotton in fashion apparel

The US still maintains over 60% market share of cotton in fashion apparel

Cotton's share of the US clothing market has fallen following the sharp rise in cotton prices in 2012 - but the industry is fighting back.

The US International Trade Administration says that American clothing traders imported 12.29bn square metres' worth of cotton apparel last year (2013) compared to 12.04bn square metres' worth of clothes made with artificial fibres.

The figures indicate that synthetic apparel imports rose by more than 20% from 2011-13, while cotton-based imports fell 14%.

However, some reports - admittedly from organisations funded by cotton growers - suggest a measure of public aversion to aspects of synthetics, though this could be overcome by further advances in fibre technology.

"It is inaccurate to say that consumers are favouring synthetic fibres over cotton in their apparel; consumers can only choose from what is available at retail," says James Pruden senior director public relations of Cotton Incorporated, the leading cotton industry association.

After the sharp rise in cotton prices two years ago many companies substituted high percentages of cheaper synthetic fibres in what had been 100% cotton items.

"Our research shows that consumers...are not pleased," Pruden continues. A Lifestyle Monitor survey and Customer Comments Project undertaken for Cotton Incorporated suggests that 53% of American consumers "are bothered by declines of cotton content in their apparel purchases."

Major concerns reported by the larger retailers were "shrinking, wrinkling, pilling, fading, stretching, snagging, itching, and odour."

They happen with all materials of course, but Pruden says reviews indicated that synthetic clothing "tends to have more major performance issues than apparel made with natural fibres like cotton" and some synthetic clothing "has a higher likelihood to have odour and snagging issues".

The surveys quoted by Cotton Incorporated found that "shoppers indicate a willingness to pay 20% to 30% more to keep cotton in their clothing" and "although reductions in cotton content may have provided short-term cost-savings, long-term challenges such as potential customer loss, decreased profits, and harm to a retailer or brand's image could occur."

US cotton decline less marked
"While there has been an erosion of cotton's market share worldwide in fashion apparel for polyester for some time now, I am not aware of a precipitous slide in the US," said Jeffrey Silberman, chairperson of textile development and marketing at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology.

"The US still maintains over 60% market share of cotton in fashion apparel, which is much higher than the world average in the mid-30% range," he told just-style.

If there has been a recent turn towards synthetics "that's news to me," adds Sue Strickland, executive director of the American Apparel Producers' Network (AAPN), an association of some 600 senior executives across the supply chain organised industrially worldwide to produce apparel for the US market.

But she stresses the fluidity and dynamism of fibre mixes in the US fashion business, saying she would not be surprised at such a shift. 

Further longer-term price challenges for cotton could be on the way however.

At the Washington-based International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a global forum for the industry, Rebecca Pandolf, of its statistics department, says the issue now is that since November polyester prices had been going down while cotton prices were going up, "so the gap has widened in the past few months."