November 5, 2014 / 5:31 PM / 4 years ago

Synthetic fibers surpass cotton to dominate U.S. apparel imports

NEW YORK, Nov 5 (Reuters) - U.S. imports of synthetic apparel this year have overtaken cotton garments for the first time in decades, according to the latest U.S. government data, confirming the cotton industry’s fears that cotton is losing the battle to manmade fibers.

Of 19.43 billion square-meter equivalents (sme) of apparel shipped to the United States through September, 9.87 billion was clothing made primarily of synthetic fibers like polyester and viscose, the latest U.S. government data show.

Some 9.16 billion square sme was made primarily of cotton, marking the first time since 1991 that cotton apparel imports in the world’s largest market were lower than those made of synthetic fibers. Volumes of cotton apparel imported during the first nine months of the year were down 2 percent from the same period in 2013, even as overall apparel import demand rose.

The data marks an inflection point: after years of demand erosion, cotton has lost its top spot to synthetic competitors. Yarn mills have switched spindles to polyester and its cohorts due to years of high cotton prices and improving synthetic technology.

An industry group this week called on members at a conference to renew their focus on boosting overall cotton demand, at a time when falling prices and demand worries have heightened competition among key cotton producers.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and cotton’s true enemy is synthetic fibers,” the International Cotton Advisory Committee said in a statement on Tuesday.

Total U.S. apparel imports year-to-date were up 3 percent from a year earlier, the U.S. government data showed. Synthetic imports were up nearly 9 percent from September 2013.

FALLING PRICES PROVIDE LITTLE DEMAND HELP

Global cotton stocks are ballooning as China overhauls its agricultural support program, moving to sharply curb imports and push its mills toward domestic supplies.

The industry is worried as world inventories are expected to reach a whopping 107.1 million 480-lb bales by the end of July 2015, enough to satisfy demand for nearly a full year.

Prices have plunged 30 percent year-to-date, stirring infighting. Last month, Turkey launched a dumping probe on U.S. cotton imports and a U.S. group has ratcheted up the pressure on U.S. regulators to investigate whether Beijing is complying with global trade rules.

Falling polyester prices have complicated the hope that the lower cotton prices will renew demand. Traders have noted polyester prices are also down, partially in sympathy with their cotton competitor and partially due to the freefalling price of oil, a key raw material.

The trend in apparel imports does not bode well for cotton, said INTL FC Stone analysts in a market note.

“The implication is that even as the largest garment importer in the world sources a record volume of clothing from overseas this year, cotton demand may see little if any growth again this year from American shoppers,” they said. (Reporting by Chris Prentice; Editing by David Gregorio)

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