Competition from synthetic fibers remains one of the biggest challenges facing cotton, and the industry must continue to take steps to build its share in traditional cotton product categories while developing new markets, according to officials of Cotton Incorporated who addressed the annual Young Guns Tour in Raleigh, N.C., in mid June.

The Young Guns Tour is organized by the Cotton Board to give young cotton farmers a better understanding of the cotton research and promotion program that is conducted by Cotton Incorporated and funded by their checkoff dollars. More than 100 young cotton farmers from 16 cotton producing states received an overview of Cotton Incorporated’s work and toured its North Carolina research facility. The group also toured Frontier Spinning Mills in Sanford, N.C.

“Synthetics are after our market,” said Mike Tyndall, Cotton Incorporated’s vice president of product development and implementation. “The challenge is to make cotton the most efficient fabric in the marketplace.”

Uniform ingredients

Mark Messura, senior vice president for global supply chain management, said manufactures want uniform ingredients that are easy to manage. Synthetic fibers are more uniform and are less price volatile than cotton, which is a constant challenge for cotton.

“In the world of cotton, we’re a natural fiber. But in the part of the industry that I work with, the part of the industry that takes fiber and transforms it into a finished product, cotton is a natural fiber but it is not a natural choice in manufacturing,” Messura said.

Cotton prices are much more volatile than polyester prices, which are more predictable to manufacturers. Messura said high prices in 2010 and 2011 did a lot of damage to cotton demand. During that time, a lot of brands and retailers were looking for alternatives for cotton.

For cotton, innovation matters. “If we come up with cotton that can do something else, the price issue can be overcome,” Messura said. “We have to work hard to get companies to look at cotton. Our job is to get the decision makers, manufacturers, retailers, brands, and convince them that cotton can work in their products.

“It’s about influencing the choice of cotton, to get cotton’s share up in products like women’s wear where we don’t have a big share or to keep that share in products like denim and underwear where we have a commanding share," he said.

Improvements in technology are critical in improving cotton’s share in both traditional and non-traditional markets. “If we can get cotton to do something different, if we can get it to behave differently or have some other feature or functionality, then we have a way for retailers or brands to offer something new or something different,” he said.

Denim critical

Denim is still the largest market for cotton, utilizing 1 out of every 5 pounds of cotton sold at retail. Messura said new innovations and new technologies will help build this vital market for cotton.

“The health of the denim market is really critical to the overall demand for cotton. So what can we do differently with denim? Denim can do a lot of things. It has fashion, it has function. It also has the ability to repel water.

“We have to find other uses for cotton so that when the market goes up, and an apparel retailer says we’re going to a cheaper fiber, cotton in time becomes less dependent on that and we’re more diversified,” he stressed.

For example, Messura sees a huge opportunity in non-traditional markets such as baby diapers, adult diapers and disposable wipes. These products use fiber, but that fiber isn’t always cotton. For example, the leading fiber in the baby wipe category is wood pulp. “The non-wovens market is really important to us,” he  said.