Friday, August 29, 2014

The Weave of Time: Global Textiles in 2024

Welcome to Kingpins

At the recent Kingpins show in New York, I saw a bit of the future, along with some stark reminders of the past. For one thing, I saw the executive director of the BetterCotton Initiative share a cotton panel with the director of Bayer CropScience’s e3 Cotton program to discuss the lives of farmers in both the developing and developed world. Whereas just a few years ago such a panel discussion would have been impossible, at the Kingpins event I witnessed the future of cotton production: a blending of technology, sustainability, and desire to improve the lives of farmers throughout the world. As recently as five years ago, such a discussion — if it had even been possible to get the two groups together — would have deteriorated into who had the “greenest” products, fears over GMO, and tedious technical refutations. Today, it is clear that more constructive dialogue in cotton is more possible than ever before, setting the stage for future collaboration and initiatives. As a cotton person, I can attest that the Kingpins panel was an event to behold -- a positive development that holds great promise for the future.

And then there were reminders of a painful past. Visitors spoke of tight margins, flat domestic sales, and woeful corporate results from the most recent quarter. Exhibitors, in turn, worked feverishly to sell products made with technologies and business practices that have existed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: mass production, unit price programs, and product design. Or, to put it more succinctly: price, availability, and delivery. In fact, despite the challenges of today’s market, many buyers visiting Kingpins sought out only those manufacturers using the oldest equipment and techniques. Buyers today look for old in an effort to stand out in a crowded market of new. Contemporary innovations, such as sustainable production, were marketed by virtually all exhibitors, along with the promise of simpler supply chains, a return of U.S. production, and, above all, value for the purchasing dollar.

So, I participated in a show where I had a glimpse of the future, while being reminded of the past — a dichotomy for an industry struggling to exist in a rapidly changing world. For me, it’s ironic as I can see would-be cotton foes working to find common ground while buyers of today’s textiles are looking to turn back the clock to a simpler time, when production was crafted locally, and customers were visited by car or train, as opposed to 747 jet. Today’s market, although more interconnected thanks to technology and the Internet, is actually a far more impersonal place. Sellers and buyers just don’t spend the time with each other as they used to, before the advent of Skype, IM, and email. Today’s far-flung supply chains and quick-turn business practices developed in tandem with the Internet. Which gets me thinking about the future of textiles, the outlook for sourcing, product development and innovation. It also gets me thinking about the fate of today’s major producers of textiles — in particular, China. But I am not concerned with the far future, but rather just the next ten years. Let me explain.

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.