What about world fiber consumption?
A major reason behind the decline of cotton’s share of global fiber consumption is that global synthetic fiber production capacity is three times the level of global cotton production. That helps explain why on today’s retail shelves polyester is found in about 60 percent of garments. That equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester — a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015. Demand growth for polyester filament is expected to take more share from cotton in apparel.
On the bright side, consulting firm PCI Fibres indicated at a recent polyester conference that the China Chemical Fiber Association is proposing to adjust the planned annual growth rate for chemical fibers from 9.2 percent to 3.6 percent in its five-year plan. This appears to be part of an effort to address the long-term issue of over investment and overcapacity in several Chinese industries — noteworthy because nine of the top 12 polyester manufacturers are in China.
How is the NCC responding?
As noted in a previous column, a comprehensive examination of all policies affecting global fiber production and trade — including subsidies provided to synthetic fibers — is desperately needed.
The NCC also wants to increase awareness about a specific threat to the environment from synthetic fibers that may finally be gaining recognition worldwide. Scientists know polyester decomposes at a much slower rate than cotton and other natural fibers, creating a landfill challenge from synthetic clothing. What most consumers may not know is that multiple studies are finding other harmful effects from polyester microfibers prior to their decomposition. The outdoor apparel brand Patagonia recently published the results of “Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry,” a study commissioned at the University of California, Berkley. The investigation revealed that for each time a polyester fleece jacket is laundered, up to 40 percent of polyester microfibers leave the washing machine and continue on into rivers, lakes and streams. These particles were found to cause physical and chemical effects in aquatic organisms and were found in marine species consumed by humans. Even worse is these synthetic textiles do not release odors as well as cotton. This means synthetic apparel may require additional launderings, which disperses even more microfibers.
As a natural fiber, cotton biodegrades more readily on land but cotton microfibers are released during laundering, too. However, their risk for accumulation and damage to aquatic life is believed to be negligible. Cotton Incorporated, in collaboration with North Carolina State University, is conducting a two-year study to examine the effects of aquatic environments on cotton microfibers to find out 1) if cotton fibers accumulate and 2) how quickly they decompose in water. The investigation should confirm that cotton fibers are not polluting waterways and oceans, which could provide a marketplace advantage for cotton products. The NCC, meanwhile, plans to continue shedding light on synthetic microfibers’ harmful effect on the environment.
Gary Adams is president/chief executive officer of the National Cotton Council of America. He and other NCC leaders contribute columns on this Cotton Farming magazine page.