Final exam for cotton marketing 101: Name the number one threat to U.S. cotton production. Those of you who wrote down China go to the back of the class.

“The number one threat to the U.S. cotton industry is synthetic fibers,” said Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated, Cary, N.C.

Worsham, addressing the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, said synthetic fiber is somehow less offensive to consumers than was the case just a few years ago.

“Recent surveys indicate that consumer rejection of synthetic fibers is less than it was in 1994, 33 percent compared to 44 percent,” he said. “We're also competing against 17 new fibers, and synthetics don't have problems with color or stickiness.”

Worsham said consumption of textile fabrics in recent years show cotton adding 16 million bales to annual consumption. Synthetics have added 58 million bales to consumption in the last 15 years, he said. “That means a lot of cotton left on the table.”

Last year was a good production year for cotton, but consumption is not rising to take up that supply. “Demand is not growing as rapidly as it should be,” he said.

Worsham recommends an international cotton summit to put cotton-producing countries together to find ways to increase demand. “An international forum on cotton promotion would help the United States and other countries promote cotton. Boosting demand for cotton is the goal.”

He said China will cause problems, especially with recent lifting of the textile quotas. China is expected to dominate the textile apparel market.

Worsham said the U.S. textile industry has lost about half its consumption. “Other developed countries have similar losses. Some Asian countries have lost as much as one-third of their textile industries.

“We see little chance of a turnaround in domestic mill use,” Worsham said.

Meanwhile, China has added 15.5 million bales per year to domestic mill use. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey also gained.

“Without China, world cotton consumption has not grown but declined,” Worsham said. “The textile market has not grown outside China and by 2009 China will account for 40 percent of U.S. (cotton) sales.”

And new competition is arising. Worsham said Brazil produced about 2 million bales of cotton per year 10 years ago. “Now they're making 6 million bales a year. Brazil is becoming a major competitor.”

But the U.S. cotton industry can't allow competitors, either producing nations or other fibers, to sew up the market, he said.

“Our strategy at Cotton Incorporated is to increase demand and productivity. We have to take a global look at the market and we must compete at all phases.”

Current strategies include aggressive advertising such as the “Joy of Shopping” campaign. “We're sponsoring mall events and are working with individual retailers, such as Bloomingdale's, Brooks Brothers, Gap, Old Navy and others to promote cotton.”

New product development also plays a role in stimulating demand. “We're introducing new products such as double dry cotton that wicks away moisture,” Worsham said. “That's a good option for active wear.

“In some cases, blends help promote cotton. We like the 85 percent cotton with cashmere, for instance. We're still working with wrinkle resistance.”

He said wrinkle-resistant fabrics have made significant headway since introduction. “In 1995, we had 215 wrinkle resistant brands. Now we have 469.”

Worsham said agricultural research projects, including the Cotton Incorporated Fellowship Program, focus on improving cotton genetics and production techniques.

“We're looking at things such as insect control because it (improving production efficiency) helps us compete.”