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Counting On Cotton



with a strong foothold in retail markets, cotton suppliers are turning to nonwovens as a key market for future growth



Published August 17, 2005
Related Searches: nonwoven Hygiene baby wipes roll goods

Counting On Cotton
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with a strong foothold in retail markets, cotton suppliers are turning to nonwovens as a key market for future growth

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Holding steady. That about sums up the status of the use of cotton in nonwovens these days. Although one U.K.-based cotton supplier recently closed its doors and U.S. consumption has slowed, cotton is holding its own in the area of nonwovens. It was not so many years ago that consumers, nonwovens manufacturers and cotton suppliers were burdened with the high cost of the staple fiber, which was once more than $1 per pound. Today, the New York nearby futures price for cotton has decreased to $.60 per pound and suppliers are continuing to seek new avenues to grow their markets.

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Representing 59.5% of the apparel and home fabrics retail market, cotton’s appeal is definitely far reaching. What is less certain is the fiber’s appeal specifically in nonwovens markets, where concerns over cost and processability continue to slow growth to some extent. Despite its acceptance in other markets, the question remains whether nonwoven manufacturers and consumers are willing to pay more for cotton. One advantage of cotton’s position in nonwovens is that it represents a relatively unexplored avenue for companies interested in offering something new, such as a “natural” alternative to an existing synthetic product.

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One area of growth for cotton is the hygiene market. Edward (Mac) McLean, manager of nonwovens research and implementation at Cotton Incorporated, Raleigh, NC—the marketing arm of U.S. cotton growers—said research is being conducted in the area of hygiene and absorbent product end uses. He explained that a prototype for a cotton absorbent core for diapers was recently developed, which will contain cotton fiber, wood pulp and superabsorbent powders. “Initial test results have shown that the product is competitive with currently available diaper cores as far as pricing and performance are concerned.”

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In an effort to inform the consumer about the presence of cotton, Cotton Incorporated has developed “Absorblend,” a trademark used for a hygiene product that contains at least 60% cotton in the absorbent core. “Absorblend cores utilize cotton linters, a short fiber from the cotton seed,” he said. According to Mr. McLean, although the market is cost-driven, the combination of superabsorbent powder, wood pulp and cotton linters offsets the price.

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One supplier active in the area of personal care, medical and consumer markets is BBA Nonwovens, Natural Fibers Group (formerly Veratec), Walpole, MA. Anita Owens, product manager, said, “Cotton’s appeal translates well in the area of personal care. Natural fibers have clout in the area of personal care products—swabs, cosmetic pads, and cotton balls. The market for cotton is healthy and growing,” she continued. “BBA is making strides in sourcing raw materials and in customizing cotton fiber blends to meet customer requirements.”

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Another noteworthy trend is the use of antimicrobial agents in cotton fiber applications; the agents offer anti-fungal properties for addressing mold and mildew problems or antibacterial properties for combatting bacteria-generated problems such as staining and odor. The trend has obvious potential for areas such as household, medical and baby wipes in addition to previously established markets such as bedding, apparel and home furnishings.

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Mr. McLean explained that antimicrobial cotton fiber has an advantage over existing treatments, which may lack durability and are often applied to roll goods by padding or through a surface treatment, which cannot be used with lighter weight or lower strength nonwovens. “We’re working on antimicrobial retention and are looking for an antimicrobial that retains its effectiveness through the hydroentanglement process,” he said. Mr. McLean indicated that he would like to see more cotton in all types of disposable products, including absorbent cores, feminine hygiene products and consumer and baby wipes. He referred to the fiber as “natural, environmentally friendly and a renewable resource,” explaining that it has distinct advantages over synthetics. “It can be an environmental issue,” Mr. McLean added. “Everybody has a little recycling bin so we feel like we’re doing our part. But it doesn’t stop there.”

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In terms of technologies, the days of exclusively carded cotton processing are long over and expanded manufacturing processes are continuing to open up possibilities for cotton in nonwovens. Needlepunching is an area of worldwide growth for various applications and fibers and some cotton suppliers reported an increased acceptance of and interest in needlepunching.

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Another technological segment where cotton is continuing to experience growth, particularly in the area of medical wipes, is hydroentanglement. In addition to baby wipes and protective medical apparel, decorative fabrics, such as limited use napkins and table cloths, are future applications for spunlaced cotton fibers.

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“With the flourishing U.S. economy, we have seen increased use of bleached cotton in needled and spunlaced applications,” said George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing for Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC. “With new finishes developed to aid in processability, barriers that had been present in these applications in the past have been overcome and consumers can enjoy the benefits of cotton in these nonwoven products. The North American and European markets continue to grow in usage of cotton in nonwovens.”

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Across the ocean, cotton potential remains strong. “Export business has increased and opportunities also continue to present themselves in the U.S. market,” Ms. Owens said. She also commented on the increasing use of cotton as a raw material for spunlacing and needlepunching processes.

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According to Cotton Incorporated, U.S. mill consumption was 10.5 million bales in January, nearly 7% below the rate for the same period last year. However, on the other side of the coin, January’s rate was higher than the rates for November and December, each totalling 10.3 million bales.

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Discussing the effect these figures have had on the market was Mark Messura, senior director of corporate planning and program development of Cotton Incorporated. “Weakened U.S. demand has softened U.S. cotton prices,” he said. “Raw cotton fiber prices are significantly lower than we’ve seen them in years. World stocks are larger than they were and that tends to push the price down,” he said.

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Making matters worse is the fact that as the growth of several economies around the globe slowed in the past year, demand for textiles and cotton has fallen. World cotton consumption is down 3.8 million bales, 4.3% from a year ago. In terms of geographical regions, consumption has declined in China, the U.S., Turkey and Russia. The forecast from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for world cotton consumption fell by 290,000 bales from last month to 84.7 million bales, 3.6% below last year’s figure.

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According to Mr. Hargrove, “Cotton prices have moderated significantly over the past two years even though we had a much smaller crop in 1998.” He added that exports of raw cotton are off this year, reducing overall demand and resulting in lower cost bleached cotton fibers. He attributed the drop in price to a decrease in the total demand for the U.S. crop. “Traditional textile manufacturers have been fighting Asian imports, which has reduced the U.S./domestic requirement for virgin cotton,” he said.

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Cotton Incorporated’s Mr. McLean also offered an outlook on the marketplace. “The U.S. is a slow climb—not much growth,” he said, adding that for domestic manufacturers price is a deterrent. Mr. McLean noted a large growth market in Japan, which he attributed to customers’ desire for a top-notch product, cost notwithstanding.

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Looking ahead, he added that the future is in finding more applications for cotton in nonwovens. “If we can move from synthetic to natural fibers in home furnishings and apparel, why can’t we do that in disposable markets by offering consumers an environmentally friendly and natural alternative?”