Shoppers could fork over a few more dollars for a new pair of blue jeans in coming months, if the price of cotton stays high.
"The price of cotton on the world market is the highest it’s ever been," said Ian Hardin, a textiles professor at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "The previous record was during the Civil War."
As the price of cotton skyrockets, cotton clothing like blue jeans likely will get pricier – and the cost of polyester clothing also could rise.
The cotton crop garnered about 50 cents a pound for the past few years, but this fall, prices shot up to $1 a pound; last week cotton sold for just under $1.80 a pound, Hardin said.
Georgia farmers grow tons of cotton every year, and higher crops prices could translate to bigger price tags on clothes this year – but it’s not yet clear how high those prices might go, he said.
Clothing manufacturers and retailers will have to assess how much extra they’re willing to charge customers for the increased price of cotton, he said.
Retailers especially were hit hard by the economic recession and have a tough choice between alienating customers with higher prices or absorbing the costs themselves.
"All of the retailers are still trying to get back on their feet," Hardin said.
The world’s supply shrunk this year as top cotton-producing countries like China and Pakistan suffered devastating droughts. And India, another top producer, capped its cotton exports. If cotton prices stay high, it’s likely that alternative fibers, like polyester, also will increase in price to match the market demand, Hardin said.
"Usually, when cotton prices go up, polyester usage increases," he said.
Polyester prices already are rising internationally, and if cotton goes higher, it’s possible that polyester manufacturers will increase the price of their product. Polyester isn’t a cheap alternative to cotton now, because it’s made from a chemical that’s derived from petroleum.
"Polyester is tied to the price of petroleum, and if petroleum prices keep trending upwards, then the polyester could do the same," Hardin said. "They may even jump the price up simply because they see they have nothing to lose."
A trend in higher cotton prices might hurt the American consumer’s wallet in the short term, but really could help the country’s bottom line, said Doug Bachtel, a demographics and statistics professor in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"Not only do we produce a lot of cotton, we produce a lot of quality cotton," Bachtel said.
The increased price of cotton, especially if the crop stays plentiful in the United States and shrivels elsewhere, could lead to a ripple effect for the country, he said.
China buys much of its cotton from the United States, and if that country has a rotten harvest, it’d have to rely more on American agriculture, Bachtel said.
That could mean less U.S. debt in the hands of China, he said.
"The change might help our balance of payments," Bachtel said. "There’s these huge ramifications for some of these agriculture products."
But one year of the United States dominating the cotton market might not do much to prices in the long term.
"Next year, the Indian cotton harvest might be gangbusters," he said.