Field Of Dreams

August 17, 2005

looking to score a home run, cotton suppliers are finding that if they grow it, customers will come

After years of decline, cotton prices have made a slow and steady comeback—with New York Nearby Future prices reaching as low as $.4815 per pound in early December and climbing to a current price of slightly above $.58. However, according to the USDA’s February report, with an estimated 42 million bales in carryover from last year’s crop, prices are not expected to significantly jump anytime soon.

Looks like cotton’s batting average is about to improve. With prices declining in the last couple of years and now steadily moving their way back up, cotton is looking to score big by playing against its competitors and penetrating new markets in the new millennium. Cotton will need to take advantage of its high visibility, its all natural, environmentally safe benefits and its versatility to maintain a presence in the health and beauty care markets, establish itself in the wipes and air laid diaper core markets and make its mark in industrial applications such as home insulation and filtration. Cotton is also strengthening its position in the areas of needlepunching and hydroentangling, while experimenting with processes such as spunbonding.

During the last couple of years cotton suppliers have been feeling the heat from less expensive synthetics that perform similarly. According to the National Cotton Council of America, the use of man-made fiber is growing across a variety of markets. From 1992 to 1997 man-made fiber use, especially polyester, grew at an annual compound rate of 7%, while cotton only grew 1.2% per annum. Also, in 1998 cotton mill use fell 3.6 million bales as polyester use grew 3.5%.

In response to such pressure from synthetic fibers, cotton suppliers continue to seek new areas of application. This is certainly true in the nonwovens sector, where cotton producers are working hard to increase visibility. One example of such efforts comes from Cotton Incorporated, Cary, NC, which—in an effort to enter into the absorbent core market—introduced its “Absorblend” trademark in late 1998. Absorblend is the organization’s recognized logo for hygiene products that contain at least 60% cotton and/or cotton linters in the absorbent core.

According to Mac McLean, manager of nonwovens research and implementation for Cotton Incorporated, there has been recent interest in using cotton in hygiene markets. “Cotton is gearing toward the hygiene market. Cotton Incorporated has been receiving tremendous feedback and requests for ‘Absorblend.’ We’ve been working with companies that are looking to use cotton in absorbent core applications and other products such as wipes.”

Ian Hollis, sales manager at Buckeye Technologies, Memphis, TN, also pointed to cotton’s potential in absorbent cores. “Cotton is an extremely versatile fiber. It has a good wicking rate, high absorbency and it performs well. The air laid diaper core is imminent and cotton’s ongoing marketing should move it along,” he said.

In the last couple of years, nonwoven processes such as hydroentanglement and needlepunching have started to use more cotton. Spunlaced technology has been used to create end products like cotton balls, cotton swabs, cosmetic pads and medical sponges and will look to penetrate the wipes market.

Jill Langevin, marketing manager at Buckeye Technologies, sees the endless possibilities for cotton wipes, “There has been an explosion of interest in disposable wipes. There are antibacterial wipes, mosquito repellent wipes, acne wipes—any kind of wipe you can think of. There are going to be niche markets where cotton is going to be a great fit,” she said.

Bart Morse, business unit manager at BBA Nonwovens, Natural Fibers Group, Walpole, MA, also sees promise in cotton wipes. “Even though cotton is more expensive than synthetics, cotton is going to be a big plus in the wipes market. It’s going to be useful where end users appreciate its appeal,” he said.

Another area of interest for cotton nonwovens is needlepunching, where the industrial market is turning to cotton as a alternative to man-made fibers. According to George Hargrove, vice president of sales and marketing at Barnhardt Manufacturing, Charlotte, NC, there is a growing interest in using cotton in wet filtration. “Cotton is attractive in filtration because it has superior wet strength over other fibers. Also, since it is ribbon shaped, there is more surface to catch impurities,” Mr. Hargrove said.

Mr. McLean suggested other advantages of cotton in wet filtration, “Cotton will benefit in filtering hot fluids and oils. Cotton doesn’t break down as easily as other synthetics and can maintain its strength in high heat. Plus, cotton is all natural, so it won’t contaminate anything it’s filtering,” he said.

Another attractive market for cotton nonwovens is home insulation where cotton will compete against fiberglass. As a safe alternative to fiberglass, cotton cannot be breathed in or mishandled. While cotton batting performance is similar to fiberglass insulation, cotton remains more expensive than its competitor.

The Natural/Synthetic Double Play
As the saying goes, “Imitation is the finest form of flattery.” In the case of cotton fiber, many of its competitors try to imitate its performance and appeal. However, one thing cotton’s competition doesn’t envy is its higher pricing. While 100% cotton is considered to be too expensive to be practical in some applications, there is a trend to combine cotton with other fibers to make a less expensive yet high performance product.

Chuck Allen, director of technical affairs at INDA, Cary, NC, commented on the combination of cotton with other fibers. “There are some thermal bonded nonwoven fabrics produced by blending cotton with thermal-plastic fibers. These fabrics are designed to be used in coverstock, hygiene and medical areas,” he said.

Mr. McLean of Cotton Incorporated cited an increase in experimentation. “We see cotton being used in all nonwoven processes. We’ve been working with a multitude of processes including pre-calendering. We have also been working with TANDEC at the University of Tennessee on spunbond technology for cotton. We are currently in the marketing phase of this technology,” he said.

Cotton is also being used along with other fibers to make industrial products. For instance, some manufacturers are air laying cotton with polyester and polypropylene to make blends for chair cushions and automotive door panels for acoustical applications and padding.

With the increasing use of cotton, the world’s bleached cotton suppliers are working hard to keep pace. One example is Barnhardt Manufacturing, which will expand by adding continuous bleaching technology to its Charlotte, NC plant. The company purchased the equipment from Edward Hall, High Peak, U.K.—which ceased operations last year—and expects to start up by October. The new continuous bleached process will provide raw materials for spunlaced and needlepunched applications. With the new line, Barnhardt will increase its capacity by 50% and boast one of the largest capacities of bleached cotton in the world.

Cotton supplier Ihsan Sons Ltd., Lah ore, Pakistan, has also expanded its operations. In March 1999 the company expanded its facility to 10,000 tons and looks to further increase capacity to 20,000 tons by the second half of this year.

A League Of Its Own
Many nonwoven manufacturers have been hesitant to use cotton because it was widely believed to be difficult to process. During the last couple of years, however, manufacturers of needlepunched and hydroentangled nonwovens have been using more cotton, which has helped nonwovens producers understand how to process cotton.

Discussing this topic was INDA’s Mr. Allen. “Cotton is not difficult to process, only different. Nonwovens machinery is made to adapt to synthetics and you have to go through a learning curve to learn how to process cotton. Cotton can run efficiently as long as you have the proper equipment.”

Mr. Hargrove of Barnhardt Manufacturing agreed, “Cotton is not difficult to process if the equipment is set up properly. Today, finishing cotton is not difficult at all. There is a lot of technical service that will help incorporate cotton into the finished product,” he said.

While manufacturers are dispelling the myth of the difficulty of processing cotton, others addressed a separate myth—a boom in antimicrobial usage. Mr. Morse of BBA discussed the decline of this trend. “We’re finding that there is not that much interest in antimicrobials because of government involvement and red tape. Now you need to substantiate all the antimicrobial properties your product has,” he said.

Mr. Hargrove also commented on the lack of interest in antimicrobials. “There was some misuse of the term ‘antimicrobial’ and poor marketing, which scared a lot of people. There was tremendous interest four years ago, but there is not so much today,” he said.

The USDA’s May report predicted that world cotton production will fall by 1.5% to 86 million bales despite an increase of 2 million bales in U.S. production. With China’s planted acreage believed to be at least 10% less than a year ago, a decline in Chinese production is expected to offset a U.S. increase. Even though cotton will see world consumption increase 1.7% from last year to 92 million bales, the USDA projects a 14% decline in world cotton stocks in 2000/2001 with an inventory of 36.6 million bales. The world stocks-to-use ratio is 47.1% this year and is projected to fall to 39.8% next year.