By now, most consumers in the United States know that cotton is the fiber of choice when it comes to clothing or towels or bed linens. That, unfortunately, is not the case in much of the rest of the world.

“Other countries are not promoting cotton consumption, even the other largest world producers such as China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan or Australia,” said Allen Terhaar, executive director of Cotton Council International, speaking at a press briefing at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta.

“The U.S. cotton industry is the only one doing consumer promotion on any significant scale — here in North America using the Cotton Incorporated Seal of Cotton and elsewhere using the COTTON USA trademark.”

“What's happening in other countries reflects what could have happened in the United States if farmers had not funded their own marketing and research program, said Dean Turner, senior vice president in charge of global marketing and technical services at Cotton Incorporated.

“Those of you old enough may remember that when we were formed 30 years ago, cotton's market share at retail seemed destined to drop precipitously to around 20 percent in the early 1990s,” said Turner. “Cotton was history…a fiber of the past.”

As most producers know, Cotton Incorporated has worked hard to reverse that trend so that cotton consumption levels are back above the 60 percent level in the United States and Mexico today.

Outside North America, however, promotion efforts for cotton have been limited with man-made fiber dominating much of the overall strong growth in fiber use. As a result, cotton consumption is declining overseas and world cotton prices have fallen to the lowest levels in 20 years.

Synthetics' advantage

“The key reason that cotton is losing the battle against man-made fibers internationally appears to be the decline in cotton consumption in favor of synthetics in some of the world's most populous countries, including those like India and China that are among the world's largest cotton producers,” said Terhaar.

“In those countries, cotton has not only lost market share to man-mades, it has also lost overall per capita consumption. If this trend continues, cotton consumption in India, for example, will be half what it is today by 2020.”

To combat such losses, Cotton Council International is working to develop a formula to stimulate demand in densely populated countries, particularly those with domestic cotton fiber production.

As part of that effort, Cotton Council International applied for and was granted $2 million in USDA Section 108 funding over the next three years to try innovative approaches to increase foreign consumption.

Cotton Gold Alliance

“Our intent is to pick one or two countries within the Indian subcontinent and South America to focus our activities to determine the success of this approach and determine how and whether this program can be expanded after two or three years of success,” Terhaar said.

The program will be called the Cotton Gold Alliance, a reference to the partnership between Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated that will build on the organization's experience in promoting U.S. cotton.

“The Alliance also refers to the close working relationship that we intend to develop with the leaders of the local cotton value chain,” he said. “We intend to enlist their collaboration and active financial involvement in promoting their products in local markets.”

Given the challenge of man-made fibers, “we cannot afford to have developing countries moving wholesale from natural fibers to synthetics,” Terhaar noted. “We need to devise effective strategies to bring those consumers, particularly those in the middle class, back to cotton.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com