Overcoming Good Intentions: Government Measures do More Harm than Good

Governments always mean well, and sometimes government programs actually achieve desired results. Nevertheless, government measures that distort production, consumption and trade always do more harm than good, and in a highly competitive world economy, cotton would be better off with less government “support,” not more. Continue reading

WTO Disciplines Should Apply to All

In the Age of Sail, all lines on ships were made of natural fibers, mostly hemp and sisal, and millions of tons of both fibers were produced each year. As late as the 1960s, world hemp production was still nearly 400,000 tons per year and sisal production still totaled 750,000 tons per year. Today, with the exception of museum ships, all ships’ lines are made of nylon, polypropylene or polyester, and world production of hemp has fallen to less than 60,000 tons while sisal production has fallen to less than 300,000 tons, most of which is used in agricultural twines and cordage.

Prior to the advent of “fast fashion” and “casual Fridays,” wool was a major apparel fiber. In the 1960s, wool accounted for 10% of world apparel fiber use, and wool production for all uses including carpets reached 1.8 million tons in the early 1990s. Today, wool accounts for 1.2% of world apparel fiber use, and production has fallen to 1.1 million tons.

Prior to the invention of manmade fibers, all apparel fibers were natural, and in the 1800s and early 1900s, cotton probably accounted for 85% of world fiber use. However, with the development of nylon, rayon, polyester, and other manmade fibers, cotton’s share has fallen. In the 1960s, cotton still accounted for two-thirds of all apparel fiber use. By the 1980s, cotton’s share had fallen to half, and today, cotton’s share of world fiber consumption is less than 30%, and falling. World cotton consumption reached 26.6 million tons in 2007, but eight years later in 2015, despite population growth of 8% or 600 million, and cumulative world real GDP growth of 18%, world cotton consumption is still 2 million tons less than it was at its peak. Just as with sisal, wool and other natural fibers, the world may have passed peak use of cotton. Continue reading

Natural Fibers and the World Economy

World natural fiber production in 2013 (the latest year of complete data) is estimated at 33 million tons, including 26 million tons of cotton, 3.3 million tons of jute, 1.2 million tons of clean wool, and 900,000 tons of coir (fibers made from coconut husks). Production of all other natural fibers, including abaca, flax, hemp, kapok, ramie, sisal, silk, and other fibers summed to approximately 1.6 million tons.

The farm value of natural fiber production in 2013 was around US$60 billion, of which cotton accounted for $45 billion, wool $8-9 billion and jute $2 billion. All other natural fibers together accounted for the balance of about $3 billion.

It is difficult to estimate employment in the agricultural segments of natural fiber value chains because most production occurs in developing countries with weak systems of data collection, most producers are small holders and most labor is hired informally and seasonally, and because many households go in and out of fiber production from one season to the next, making it difficult to know who and how many are employed in any one year. Nevertheless, a reasonable estimate of total employment in natural fiber industries, including family labor, hired labor and employment in industries providing services to agriculture, and including both full time year round employment and part time or seasonal employment, is around 60 million households (about 300 million people), or about 4% of the world’s population. Continue reading