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The Cotton Crisis: How Floods Affect Fashion

Updated on November 12, 2010

Cotton underwear and other clothing has been regarded for years as the staple of both mens and women's underwear. Cotton underwear in particular is breathable, comfortable and promotes good health in the female nether regions. But thanks to China's burgeoning economy and crop shortages in Pakistan, India and China, the price of cotton has risen 80% in the past four months according to a report from the New York Times.

Who would have thought that the floods in Pakistan that have caused so much human pain and death in the third world could actually end up inconveniencing the very people who largely blithely ignored them?

Though you may not have seen it on the news, mills around the world have been panic buying cotton to ensure that they are able to continue production, and the situation doesn't look like it is going to improve any time soon. “World cotton production is unlikely to catch up with consumption for at least two years,” said Sharon Johnson, senior cotton analyst with the First Capital Group in an email to the NYT.

What does that mean for the first world consumer? Well firstly it means that prices of cotton garments are set to rise considerably in the coming months, so stock up now if you're really attached to cotton, because it's only going to get more expensive.

Secondly, you can expect to see more polyester blends being included in what were once 100% cotton lines. With synthetic fabrics being cheaper, easier to produce, and not dependent on weather across Asia, designers will be turning to them to produce the low cost garments we've all become so accustomed to purchasing at will.

Unfortunately, increased cotton prices won't mean that the people making the clothing get paid any more than usual. In response to the increased cost of cotton, many manufacturers are moving their production facilities to countries where labor is cheaper than cheap. According to the NYT, Lululemon Athletica, the sportswear company, is moving some manufacturing from China to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh, where wages are lower, and they won't be the only company making similar choices in the coming months. 

The cotton crisis is set to have long term effects, many manufacturers and purveyors of garments are uncertain that people will pay more for cotton. It is possible that people will simply switch to cheaper synthetic blends without batting a eyelid, especially in a time of mass financial uncertainty, and that means that in the future, cotton may very well lose market share because we'll all have become so accustomed to purchasing shiny shiny synthetic threads instead.

We like to think of fashion as a realm above and beyond mundane material concerns, but it is becoming very apparent that factors like global warming, increased industrialization and good old fashioned greed will be affecting the fashion landscape just as much, if not more than, the fashion designers in their golden towers.


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