You may not think of cotton unless you're out shopping for clothing, but it remains an economically important and lucrative American crop. The U.S. was the world's third-largest producer of cotton last year, after China and India, and the top global exporter in 2013.
Cotton is grown in 17 states, from Virginia to California, with the crop cultivated on more than12 million acres. U.S. cotton farmers harvest about 7.3 billion pounds of cotton annually, and cotton-related business revenue in the U.S. is estimated at around $100 billion.
But cotton prices have been through the mill over the past several years. Poor harvests, due to flooding in several major cotton-producing countries, coupled with rising demand from China, pushed cotton prices to near-record highs in 2011. And while those prices have come down in the ensuing years, they might be in for another bumpy ride as 2014 progresses.
The ongoing drought in Texas, the nation's top cotton-producing state, is expected to hurt the crop there, while putting more pressure on cotton buyers starting this autumn, and into 2015.
"In general, you will see some up-trending," Stephen Amosson, an economist for Texas Agrilife, told KDFA-TV in Amarillo. "We have already seen the December prices move up three cents... and it could move up another dime, it is possible. And that would reflect back into cotton products."
At the same time, the relative volatility in cotton prices have prompted parts of the international clothing industry to consider more cotton alternatives, including synthetic materials and blends, for their products.
CBS News reports that U.S. imports of apparel made from synthetic fiber rose 20 percent over the last three years, while imports of cotton clothing during that time dropped 14 percent. But the cotton industry is dismissing any reports of its demise.
"It is inaccurate to say that consumers are favoring synthetic fibers over cotton in their apparel," James Pruden, senior director of public relations of Cotton Incorporated, an industry association, told just-style, a U.K.-based website for the apparel and textile industry.
Pruden says his organization's research suggests that a majority of American consumers "are bothered by declines of cotton content in apparel purchases."
But clothing designers like Yoana Baraschi are using more man-made materials in their work, including previously unstylish materials like polyester, lycra and even neoprene rubber. Baraschi says her customers seem to appreciate the better fit they get from some synthetics and blends. However, she agrees that there will always be a future, and a place, for cotton.