The price of cotton has doubled over where it was 12 months ago, from 73¢/lb to over 156¢/lb. Prices of commodities like cotton fluctuate over time, but these are the highest prices seen since tracking began in the 19th century due to issues in each of the top four cotton-producing countries.
I’ve been talking about the cost of cotton for months, but this week I heard two stories about it on the news. The stories are rising into general consciousness, and they will probably continue to rise.
Even aside from the true cost of cotton in the sense of disgusting social justice issues in cotton production in many parts of the world or the alarming environmental and social impact of conventional cotton farming and the economic impact of the subsidies that support it, awareness of the rising cost of cotton has touched the general public. It becomes a mainstream issue when the cost of T-shirts and jeans rise or clothes get very small and lightweight for a season, and why not?
For those of us who use cotton as one of the basic materials of our production, we’ve seen the shock of low supply and higher prices coming for a while. I’ve been poking other manufacturers in the cloth diaper trade association to figure out what we can do and say for most of the year.
First, yarn was more difficult to get. So, manufacturers found that supplies of fabrics were lower than usual. Then, stories began showing up in business publications. In about the time it takes for apparel to go from the planning and production to the shelf, it seems we’ve hit the mainstream. Local news shows are running stories on cotton across the country as retailers are stocking shelves for the holiday season and customers wonder why they are seeing changes. And, now, the public alarm is feeding commodity speculation as well as shopping speculation.
In an industry that depends so much on cotton, as the cloth diaper industry does, you could see the results in demand or cost of cotton diapers.
I most certainly love hemp as a diaper fabric, but it has drawbacks that lead us away from hemp blends many years ago. Don’t get me started on the extruded goo that becomes bamboo viscose. Now and for at least a century, reusable cloth diapers have meant cotton diapers. A colleague of mine who is slightly older than I am but has been part of her family diaper service since she was a young child always says “cotton diapers” rather than “cloth diapers.” For her, cotton = diapers.
Despite a boatload (actually, many, many foreign-made boatloads) of petro-chemical-based reusable diapers, I don’t buy into the idea of reusable polyesters, laminates, and other plastics as sustainable diapering solutions. No one has yet successfully made a cloth diaper line using bio-polymers, and there are plenty of people questioning whether there can ever be a so-called sustainable bio-polymer given the nasty processing required to convert any material into a polymer, I don’t see that as a viable option. Using finite resources like oil and gas to create products for which there are perfectly good, functional, amazing, and wonderful renewable fiber materials available is just nonsensical.
But what about now? Cotton will recover—probably. In the meantime, will manufacturers pass on the costs of cotton as it continues to rise? Will consumers buy cotton products as the prices of jeans and T-shirts go up? Will there be jeans and T-shirts to buy?
Closer to home, will there be cotton diapers to buy? I have heard from colleagues that stocks of cotton diapers are lower than they have been for a long time.
For Fuzbaby and our sister site Firefly Diapers, we use only organic cotton, which flows through a surprisingly separate stream from the conventional cotton referred to above. This has, though, been a more difficult year than usual to get enough cotton. I’ve been pushing and pulling to keep diapers in stock. Though I’ve succeeded most of the time, the periods when I can’t get the cotton I need have been longer and longer—longer than I’ve experienced before in 11 years. As conventional cotton supply falls short of demand, there will undoubtedly be more pressure pushing organic prices up as well.
For now, we’re OK. For now, we have beautiful organic cotton that we’ve dyed and hand-painted. For now, we have in stock our beautiful, Made in USA, made with 100% organic cotton elemental diapers. Keep your eyes on cotton prices, though, since this could send a big ripple through the cloth diaper industry.