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Growing the Cotton Sector

Seshadri Ramkumar, Professor, Texas Tech University, USA

Cotton supply chain is a vital job-creating sector, from agriculture to fashion industry.

With the COVID-19 creating a dent in the economy with about 30 million people on unemployment benefits in the United States, how to grow the economy is a serious challenge. Growing the manufacturing sector such as the textiles should be seriously looked into. Textile industry should develop near to long-term strategies to diversify and grow. In India, over 45 million people are employed directly in the textile sector that contributes about 2% to the GDP, highlighting the importance of this sector in employment and economy. More importantly, cotton sector cuts across two major areas of the economy: 1) agriculture and 2) manufacturing.

A discussion with preeminent people whose experience spans the fields of cotton economics, genetics, cotton spinning and communication provided valuable information.

Innovation surfaced prominently, highlighting the need for both basic and applied research in the textile and allied sectors. “Managing the cost of production and developing innovative uses are vital,” stated Kater Hake, vice president of agriculture & environmental research at USA-based Cotton Incorporated. COVID-19 has brought much attention to advanced textiles products, particularly PPE. Research reports shine light on the value of cellulosic materials towards virus destabilization, breathability and comfort. “These positive aspects should spill over to traditional markets where the bale volume is higher,” pointed Jon Devine, an economist at Cotton Incorporated. Although masks may not move the bar much with regard to consumption, new applications particularly in the medical field brings due attention to the fibers, which will influence the consumption and support for natural fibers. “Non-traditional products may not consume large quantity of cotton but they allow cotton to reach new and untapped markets,” agreed Eric Hequet, a cotton geneticist and associate vice president for research at Texas Tech University.

While mission linked research, lower cost of production are valuable tools, proper messaging about the advantages of cotton plays a critical role. Cotton is not a medicine, but it is an important fiber that goes into inner wears. Improving the production efficiencies by carefully planning cotton procurement, reducing wastes, the overall cost could be controlled. This is important to compete against low cost synthetics. “Given the current situation with damped consumer confidence, getting a breakeven is a positive aspect for a spinning mill,” stated Shanmugam Velmurugan, general manager of South India-based Jayalakshmi Textiles, which produces fine count cotton yarns. “With proper government intervention that takes care of the interests of farmers and manufacturers, the industry can look forward to diversifications,” stated Velmurugan.

Cotton sector has positive messages that have to be relayed to the stakeholders, say biodegradability, microplastic issues, etc. “Microplastic issue is a once in a hundred years opportunity for the sector,” stated Kater Hake.

Again, the pandemic has brought timely and genuine interest in natural fibers. “Pandemic has reminded everyone that we live in a giant ecosystem, which is connected and we need to pay more attention to the planet,” stated Jon Devine. Such renewed enthusiasm will help with the consumption of environmentally friendly products.

“Communication is essential for everything else to succeed,” pointed out David Perlmutter, dean of Texas Tech’s College of Media & Communication. “We should not be shy about advertising the advantages of natural fibers,” added Eric Hequet.

Seizing the opportunity at hand, supporting innovative ecosystem, looking towards cost savings and more importantly timely messaging are the tools in the toolbox for the cotton sector. Cotton industry should innovate, look for new markets and enhance the use-value of fibers say industrial applications.

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