Volatile Cotton Sector Struggles to Balance Cost and Benefits

Michael Renner | Feb 13, 2015


Cotton has been grown by human civilizations for thousands of years. Promoted as “the fabric of our lives” in a long-running U.S. advertising campaign, it remains by far the most important natural fiber for textiles, although it continues to lose ground to synthetic fibers. Cotton’s share of all fibers worldwide was 88 percent in the 1940s and 68 percent in 1960.1 But by 2010 it had declined to just 33 percent, while synthetic fibers grew to 60 percent, and wool, flax, and cellulosic fibers accounted for the remainder.2

Growing cotton provides livelihoods for an estimated 100 million households in as many as 85 countries.3 But adverse global market conditions, volatility, and reliance on large doses of water, fertilizer, and pesticides impose considerable social and environmental costs.

In 2013/14, an estimated 26.3 million tons of cotton were produced worldwide, 5.5 percent below the peak value of 27.8 million tons in 2012.4 Production has expanded 3.7-fold since 1949/50, outstripping the 2.9-fold growth in human numbers.5 Exports have typically accounted for between 27 and 38 percent of total production in any given year.6 Consumption trends have been less erratic than production, but demand is now down 12 percent from the peak in 2007/08 (see Figure 1)—reflecting the impacts of the world economic crisis and the ongoing replacement of cotton by other fibers.7

Cotton Figure 1

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