Would it be an overstatement to say non-cotton is the future of fashion? No, according to current data, this claim is strongly backed by existing trends in the fashion world and the rising demand for clothing made from man-made fibres (MMF).
Although 30 years ago, the share of cotton-made yarn was about 75% in the global market and 25% for the artificial one, the scenario has completely reversed.
The demand for cotton has continuously declined over the years while the popularity of MMF or polyester has gradually gone up, changing the current global ratio of cotton to MMF to about 26:74. This clearly indicates a brighter prospect for artificial fabrics in the global fashion market in the coming days.
This situation became more apparent to me during a recent trip to Germany, where I visited one of the largest international trade fairs for technical textiles and nonwovens in Frankfurt. I had the opportunity to lead a delegation of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) in the exhibition titled 'Techtextil'.
The delegation, composed of BGMEA member factories including TRZ Garments Industry Ltd, Urmi Group, Khantex Fashions Ltd and Snowtex Group, which are specialised in manufacturing technical textiles-based garments, joined the four-day trade exhibition. Unlike other trade fairs where we generally plan to have business interactions and bag orders from new buyers, taking part in 'Techtextil' was about more than making business connections. It was about experiencing the realm of non-cotton fabrics and products, as well as technologies that are reigning in the fashion world.
International exhibitors presented a wide range of technical textiles, functional apparel textiles and textile technologies, at the exhibition held from 21 to 24 June 2022. We saw manufacturers from all over the world showcasing their leading products and technologies for the apparel industry and other textile processing segments in the trade show, including textile products from high-tech fibres, functional apparel fabrics and smart textiles, to composites and nonwovens.
It was a really tremendous experience for us as it provided us with the opportunity to grasp and gain valuable insight into the latest trends and technologies relevant to MMF product segment, while representing Bangladesh to the global buyers who came to the exhibition.
We visited Techtextil at a time when our RMG industry is putting increasing emphasis on product diversification, especially encouraging a shift to non-cotton from cotton, because the growth of cotton-based products seems to have reached its peak in Bangladesh with little room left for growth, while the global demand for synthetic products is on the rise.
Massive changes in consumer lifestyle, attitudes and eco-consciousness are driving the demand for MMF globally. Consumers increasingly prefer MMF-based products because of their 'easy-care taking' nature, functionality and competitive price.
A recent fashion trend known as athleisure has created a demand for clothing designed for workouts and other athletic activities. Yet, they can be worn at the workplace or during casual/social occasions. This trend of cross-functional clothing is also driving the demand for polyester.
Another reason for the preference for synthetic products is related to sustainability. MMF-based garments are durable, recyclable and reusable; thus, it meets the criteria of sustainable clothing. Even plastic bottles, which are harmful to the environment, are recycled to produce artificial fibres which are considered as green textiles.
But the picture in our RMG industry is different, as around 75% of our products are cotton made, whereas the share of MMF-based products in international apparel markets is around 74%. According to a report titled "Scaling up Technical Textile and PPE in Bangladesh", the global technical textile market is projected to grow from $179.2bn in 2020 to $224.4 billion by 2025, at an average annual growth rate of 4.2%.
If we look at our export basket, we find that 73% of our exports are limited to five basic items -- trousers worth $10.68 billion, T-shirts worth $7.24 billion, underwear worth $1.79 billion, sweaters worth $4.05 billion, and shirts worth $2.05 billion were exported in the financial year 2020-2021.
These top five products account for 82.04% of Bangladesh's total RMG export earnings. These figures reveal that we have an immense potential of diversifying our high-value products like suits, blazers, lingerie, jackets, swimwear, sportswear, uniform, work-wear etc.
We need to align our business strategies with changing trends in the fashion industry and develop our capabilities to sustain in the global competitive market. We have to focus more on capturing our share of the growing MMF-based products market.
To do that, we have to put emphasis on gathering technical know-how about MMF product manufacturing. We need to have a supply of raw materials, upgrade our operations with proper technologies and have a management system.
Besides this, we need to enhance our capability in innovation, design input services, trend analysis, product research and development. At this juncture, we need investment in technical textiles. We also need investment in the area of re-skilling and up-skilling our workers.
Our share is only 6.26% of the global market (as per the WTO data in 2020), meaning Bangladesh has enormous potential to increase its share.
For instance, if we produce and export high-value-added MMF products right now, it's possible to increase our total export by around 25% in value, which will gradually go up. So, considering both the local and global context, it's high time we took a turn from quantity to quality, from volume to value, by shifting to non-cotton value-added products to sustain in the long run.
Md Shahidullah Azim is the Vice President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).