Cotton is a unique agricultural product, says Mike Watson, vice president, fiber competition, Cotton Incorporated. “There are substitutes for cotton, but not for other crops.”

Those substitutes — synthetic fibers — compete with cotton for market share in the textile industry.

Watson, speaking to a group of producers from across the U.S. Cotton Belt during a recent Cotton Incorporated tour of the cotton promotion organization’s Cary, N.C. headquarters, said competitors will continue to displace cotton where they can.

“Polyester is working now to find the right combination of chemicals and equipment to make synthetics that perform like cotton.”

The challenge for cotton has increased in recent months as prices have risen to record heights. “Cotton has been at $2.20 a pound, while polyester has been only 94 cents,” Watson says.

That differential makes it necessary to find was to make cotton even more attractive to consumers. To that end, CI research and development efforts focus on providing new products and improving old ones to maintain and grow cotton’s fiber market share. Research into cotton quality plays a big role in that process.

Fiber improvement includes stain- and wrinkle-resistant, as well as shrink-proof fabrics. CI research is also looking at changes in consumer maintenance. Washing machines and dryers, for instance, have undergone significant changes in recent years to become more energy efficient. “What will that mean for cotton products?” Watson asked. “We have research for that.”

The CI product evaluation lab evaluates these issues. “We have the only product evaluation laboratory outside the USDA that tests for high volume instrumentation settings,” he says. CI also works to insure that new testing methods “do not have a negative impact on cotton testing.”

Testing products for the global supply chain is also important. “Every bale of cotton is different.” Cotton Incorporated’s engineered fiber selection system (EFS), in use for more than 25 years, helps mills select and group uniform bales of cotton to run more efficiently. CI staff also work with mills to solve problems and to train employees.

Watson says much of his work can now be done with video conferencing, saving travel time and expense for the producer-supported organization.

He also discussed the challenges of competing with other cotton-producing countries. “We have to avoid contamination and minimize bark and neps, and we have to improve flow.”

He says foreign buyers complain about such contaminants as human hair, polypropylene, and bird feathers. “We have opportunities to improve — we compete with hand-pulled cotton, and China separates contaminants by hand.”