Looking for new beats as a business reporter? Consider writing on the cotton industry, an often overlooked crop story with tension, volatility and drama. This blog explores some of the core ideas behind the cotton industry and how you can write on them.
Investigate the challenges
The cotton industry is rife with challenges, particularly now, as China and the U.S. cotton manufacturers are struggling with the increasing use of synthetic fibers. In July, 2016, U.S. and Chinese manufacturers joined a pact to jointly promote their cotton and work against the use of synthetic fibers. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on upscale brands that are embracing high-performance, synthetic materials. Also, while cotton prices are slowly creeping up, this year prices have been down. As you write on the cotton industry, consider these background challenges for context and as you gather your quotes and figures.
Grasp the global flow
It’s also helpful for reporters to understand the global breakdown of cotton production. For instance, China remains the biggest importer of U.S. cotton and the world’s largest producer of cotton overall. India is the world’s second largest producer, followed by the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains the world’s largest exporter of cotton, according to trade group and Reuters reports.
Understand America’s place
According to the National Cotton Council of America, a trade organization, cotton is grown in 17 states across the southern half of America, including California, Texas, Alabama and the Carolinas. In 2012 (the most recent available figures), around 18,600 cotton farms produced approximately 17 million bales. For context, note that one bale of cotton can make 1,217 men’s T-shirts or 313,600 $100 bills, the council writes.
Follow the trends
With the U.S. as the world’s largest cotton exporter, business journalists should monitor the trends and data behind this system. For instance, this year the Wall Street Journal reports U.S. exporters of cotton are looking beyond China to make up for lowered imports into this region as China is supplying more of its own domestic needs in a range of areas including pork, coal, and cotton. American cotton growers sent 2.65 billion bales to China last fall harvest vs. 6.43 million bales in 2011-2012 says Cotton Inc., a trade group based in Cary, N.C.
Explore projected developments
Business reporters can also write evergreen pieces by looking ahead at what the industry might do next. For instance, the Daily Star reports that Cotton Council International (CCI) suspects Bangladesh will become the U.S.’s next biggest importer of cotton and hopes to double U.S. cotton exports to that country in five years. One expert is quoted as projecting Bangladesh’s garment exports will increase at a targeted rate of 12 percent, which means the nation will consume a 10 percent increase in cotton. Note too what’s driving that trend: Global apparel makers like Zara, H&M and Walmart purchase garments from Bangladesh in bulk, the CCI executive said. The report notes that Bangladesh imported 5.75 million bales of cotton last year and may exceed 5.9 million bales next year.
• Modern challenges facing the cotton industry include the manufacturers of synthetic fibers, a sector increasingly favored by even high-end brands. Trade groups may be combatting that trend.
• With China increasing its cotton production, where is the U.S. looking to export the 17 million bales it produces each year?
• The cotton industry has weathered earlier dips in the market. Are there lessons to be applied to today’s situation?
Debbi G McCullough runs Hanging Rock Media. She writes and edits for the Guardian’s Guardian Labs, Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. She also teaches business communication part-time at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a United Nations Foundations press fellow 2016.