Saturday, July 19, 2014

Polyester: The Plastic of Our Lives

It seems these days everyone is wearing plastic. Polyester and other synthetics have made inroads in apparel in ways not seen since the days of double-knit leisure suits and Nik Nik shirts.  After the crash in double-knits in the 1970s, polyester suffered from a terrible reputation. It smelled bad (especially under the arms, no kidding), was hot and had an unnatural slimy hand. Today, its different: incredibly, polyester is considered green, wicks well and is used in a wide range of garments. In fact, over the past fifteen years or so, synthetics have gobbled back the entire market share lost in the 1970s.  How on earth did this happen?

In the old days, synthetic fiber companies produced what was collectively known as “man-made fibers.” Today, this has been relabeled to read less chauvinistically as “manufactured fibers.” There are two broad segmentations in the manufactured fiber industry: synthetic and artificial fibers. The synthetic category is comprised of fibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and olefin, while the artificial category is made up of acetate and rayon. Synthetics are made (in varying degrees) using petroleum-derived raw materials such as ethylene glycol, caprolactam, etc. Often times, these fibers are referred to as noncellulosic fibers – meaning they are not naturally derived. On the other hand, artificial fibers are cellulosic in that the raw materials originate in nature, such as wood pulp, but are then subjected to powerful chemicals to break down wood pulp into cellulosic cotton-like fibers.

In either case, manufactured fibers have successfully filled production niches where natural fibers do not perform particularly well. For example, polyester, nylon and rayon are used in tire cord, while acetate is used in cigar filters and olefin is used in outdoor carpets, garbage bags, and rugs. Moreover, manufactured fibers have enjoyed robust sales in various home textile and industrial applications over the years. These are versatile productts well suited to a wide range of end use applications.

From the outset of their invention, manufactured fibers have also enjoyed a sizable share of the global apparel market. Rayon, for example, was first seen as a replacement for silk; so it was widely used in womens hosiery and intimate clothing. Acetate is often used in garment linings. Polyester and nylon are often used in outerwear as both a cold weather insulator, luggage, and rain repellent covers. For many years, acrylic was used as an alternative to wool, so often acrylic was used in sweaters, but also carpets. Over the years, however, use of these fibers has expanded in apparel end uses in a blended form with cotton. Easy care shirts, for example, were first created using a 60%-40% cotton/polyester blended fabric. Cotton feels good next to the skin, but wrinkles, while polyester resists wrinkling. Many feel a blended fabric gives consumers the best of both worlds.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cotton's Muddled Message

As you read this article – and assuming you're dressed – please check to see what your clothes are made of. Go ahead, check. I'll wait. As you look for the fiber content label, I'd bet that your clothes more likely than not contain synthetic fiber. It may be under a trade name or it made be generic; but according to market statistics, about two-thirds of all textiles and apparel contain synthetics. I base this not on some public relations release from a polyester company but on official statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Commerce. As the United States imports so much of the world’s production of textiles and apparel, import statistics are a useful surrogate for market trends. According to the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles and Apparel, the United States imported about 57 billion square meter equivalents (SME) of textiles and apparel in 2013, up from about 54 billion SME in 2011. Since 2011, cotton’s share of the import market actually fell while the market share for synthetics grew by 3% to reach 65% of all U.S. textile and apparel imports.

There are a lot of reasons why cotton has lost market share. The spike in cotton prices in 2011 helped propel synthetics to levels of consumption not seen in years. Synthetics have been cheaper. Price has played a significant role; there’s no getting around that. Technical performance factors also affect fiber-sourcing decisions. But there’s another reason that has helped to swing the market towards greater use of synthetic fibers: confusion. It’s not that sourcing executives don’t know the difference between synthetics and cotton, but rather that it’s hard for sourcing executives to distinguish amongst all the difference cotton messages in the market.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Global Search For Profitability And Its Costs

With the recent announcement of a pay hike for garment workers in Bangladesh, I got to thinking about how labor costs affect the price of clothing, as well as how the global expansion of textile and apparel production has brought jobs to many thousands of otherwise unemployable people. In turn, the global expansion of textiles and apparel hastened the demise of traditional manufacturing in the United States, Europe, Japan and other developed countries. There are two sides to globalization – a winning side and a losing side. Change brings about winners and losers. Those who adapt will survive; those who do not will perish. It may sound harsh, but it is the economic reality of our times.

The Current Industry: A Model To Behold

It is curious for me to consider the current state of sourcing in the global industry. Consumers around the world now enjoy low-cost clothing featuring a wide range of fabric designs, finishes and styles. Not all that long ago, that was not the case. In fact, there was a time when the global trade in textiles and apparel was restricted to such a degree that product innovation and consumer choice were second to the edicts of textile mills. Whereas today, the true power of the industry has migrated closer to the consumer, there was a time when the middle of the textile supply chain dictated what apparel brands and retailers were able to off to consumers. Moreover, such control of textile output was reinforced by a system of quotas that not only clamped down on the availability of products, but also hindered product innovation and helped to keep prices for textiles and apparel artificially high.