The Decline Of Cotton Clothing: Three Reasons Why Cotton Is Falling Out Of Favor

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clothesFor over two hundred years cotton has been one of the most important and common clothing choices for people all around the world.  Cotton covered entire regions and it was the most important cash crop for the United States, India and Egypt for decades, but there has been a movement against cotton garments over the last ten years or so.  As consumers strive to be more eco-friendly, cotton fails to meet the requirements that these customers strive for, and so they are choosing alternative fabrics.  As it stands, sales for cotton clothing in industrialized countries will continue to fall, as cotton has no way to recover its previous position.  There are three primary reasons why cotton has fallen out of favor.

In-organic Chemicals And Gene Manipulation

One of the things that eco-friendly consumers look for is a product that is 100% organic, meaning that it is free of any kind of chemicals or gene manipulation.  In the case of cotton, there are few plants that are more chemical laden or manipulated.  The profits to be made from growing cotton encouraged more and more farmers to move towards cotton production, and it meant that they were spending an increasing amount of money to keep those crops protected.  By 2011 cotton required more insecticides to produce than any other agricultural product, and that be a large margin.  The chemicals were not the only problem, as farmers also sought cotton seeds that could grow in extreme conditions or could stand up to pests better than before.  This led to extreme genetic modification, so that modern agricultural cotton barely resembles real cotton.

Rising Prices

Another factor that has caused the decline of cotton has been the worldwide rise in prices, even as cotton cultivation reaches the highest levels in history.  The problem for cotton is the same problem that oil and gas are facing: worldwide demand is starting to catch up with supply, and there is not enough to go around.  In the developing world cotton clothing was a luxury, and not something that the average person or family could afford; however, as cultivation increased prices started to drop.  It took a while for demand to catch up to this new supply, and so cotton enjoyed a period of cheapness that no other fabric could compete with.  Now that China, India and the developing world have caught up, demand exceeds supply, and there is no way to get the cost of cotton back down.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives

The fatal blow to cotton may not be something that cotton farmers ever had control over, but it will be the end anyway.  As society has become more eco-friendly, the demand for alternative fabrics rose, and so did the supply of those fabrics.  Where cotton reached its production limit, bamboo, flax and hemp had plenty of room to grow to meet demand.  The end result is that prices for these alternative fabrics began to fall relative to cotton, and they become not only an eco-friendly choice, but they became an economically viable alternative.  Now these other fabrics appeal to a wide range of customers, and it is unlikely that cotton will be able to erode that market share.

Cotton was king for a long time, but that kingdom is coming to an end.  The higher cost of cotton and the cultural demand for alternative fabrics is making cotton less attractive to customers, and there is little that cotton farmers can do to reverse this trend.  Once the end comes, and cotton farmers begin planting alternative fabrics, cotton may get a chance to reorganize and come back strong in a generation or two, but it is going to take work.

I am James Lawrence, an agricultural economist.  I have been watching companies like Bambooki and other alternative clothing providers for over year, and I feel confident in predicting the expansion of the alternative fabric market in relation to the cotton market in the developed world.