While natural fibres and yarns are still a mainstay of the global textile and clothing market, some resources are beginning to run scarce - prompting experts to warn it is only a matter of time before man-made fibres (MMF) begin to dominate. 

David Morris, head of the economics department at the European Man-Made Fibres Association (CIRFS), says that while the market for cotton, for example, is continuing to grow due thanks in part to heavy government subsidies, there will be severe constraints upon future production levels due to a loss of arable land, water requirements and soil degradation.

Morris adds that current indications also show wool consumption is likely to continue its long-term decline. "The fibre is increasingly becoming a niche product, certainly in apparel," he says, adding that traditional advantages of wool apparel have been made redundant by lighter-weight, synthetic products.

Of course demand for all fibres is affected by economic performance generally: if consumers can afford to buy more clothes, then more fibre will be needed.

Currently, despite a trend towards purchasing cheaper fibres, the market for natural and man-made yarns and fibres is strong, says Peter Driscoll, managing director at PCI Fibres, a UK-based technical consultancy for the man-made fibre industry.

He says that while fibres supplied to textile producers declined in recessionary 2008 - down 6% across natural and man-made fibres (MMF) at 69.3m tonnes - it has since risen strongly; up 3% in 2009 and 8% in 2010, with PCI's current forecast for 2011 showing a further 4% increase to reach 80.4m tonnes.

At the same time, cotton is still being given a push by governments. According to the International Cotton Advisory Committee, for example, from 2009-2010, Chinese producers were given US$1. 9bn in assistance by their government, while US producers received US$818m; in the European Union, cotton producers in Spain and Greece received subsidies as high as US$4.32 per kg and US$1.21 per kg, respectively, during the same period.

Major fluctuations
Despite this, Dr Christian Schindler, director at the International Textile Manufacturers Federation (ITMF) says the market for natural fibres has been showing some major fluctuations.

"Over a period of about 12 to 18 months, fibre prices were soaring to unprecedented levels; but since March, they've plummeted," he explains. "Fibre prices of cotton, for example, rose from a long-term average of US$0.60 to US$2.40 a pound; and then, in the last five months, dropped to around US$1 a pound."

That kind of volatility, says Schindler, has presented some challenges for the fibre industry. "For those who bought cotton at US$2 - expecting prices to rise even further - and then saw them drop, you can imagine what kind of difficulty they're facing in terms of selling their cotton yarn."

In terms of supply and demand, concerns have to do with the latter, and not the former, though, he notes. "There is no lack of yarn at the moment; there is rather a demand problem that exists instead. Retailers, because of rising costs, and the debt crisis, have reduced their stocks and demand - especially in the US and Europe - so many spinners who have produced lots of yarns are now sitting on those expensive yarns and don't see sufficient demand to sell them at acceptable levels."

Brian John Hamilton, a PhD student at the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University in the US, has been studying trends in the fibre and yarns industries. According to his research, fabric manufacturers have managed to deal with price increases in two ways: through shorter contracts, which keep them from getting locked into deals that may fall through if input costs rise; and by purchasing surplus yarn, to maintain prices for longer periods of time.

In addition, says Schindler, many retailers are now asking spinners to make a shift, wherever possible, to producing cheaper, man-made fibre blends. With this, Morris predicts bright futures for man-made fibres, estimating that by 2020, synthetic filament yarn will account for over 36% of all fibres produced.

According to Frédéric Van Houte, director general of CIRFS, man-made fibres already account for 66% of fibres used worldwide, and 75% of those processed in Europe.

Environmental focus
Another trend happening in yarn and fibre production, says Schindler, is a push towards environmentalism. "Everyone in the textile value chain is working very hard to reduce any kind of negative emissions to the environment, through energy efficiency, waste water treatment, water consumption reduction, etc - especially China."

He adds: "With this, manufacturers are working not only to feel better about protecting the environment, but it's also cost-saving."

And with man-made fibres growing increasingly in demand - paired with the desire for 'greener' production - the fact that China is producing the majority of these synthetic fibres should secure its top spot in the industry in the coming years, Driscoll says.

"Although China has, we estimate, 53% of global textile activity across all fibres, in man-made fibres alone it has 60% (32.3m tonnes) - of which nearly three-quarters stays in China for domestic consumption.

"The result is that in man-made fibres, the world market as regards raw materials, technology, product development and pricing is very much influenced by events in China."

Follow the links below to read other articles in this month's management briefing.

just-style management briefing: Yarns and fibres see domestic sourcing shift

just-style management briefing: Cotton supplies fuel industry struggle in India

just-style management briefing: High-tech materials get more functional