Here in the United States, the word “frontier” conjures up a very specific set of feelings and images. It’s understood to be a reference to the country’s ambitious expansion from east to west during its early years, famously characterized by images of log cabins, Wild West cowboys, and prospectors panning for gold in mountain streams.
Although cotton fiber was being used by human beings for centuries before Christopher Columbus set off on his famous expedition back in 1492, the American concept of “frontier” is applicable to the current situation our industry faces.
Building a Foundation
The first task any adventurer needs to undertake is to find shelter – a secure home base to operate from in an unfamiliar environment. For many of today’s merchants and mills, that means securing a reliable supply of fiber, which is why so many of them are getting directly involved with production. By contracting with small producers in places like Africa and providing them with the inputs they need but often can’t afford, fiber buyers ensure that they will have access to quality cotton when harvest time comes around.
Another critical aspect of security involves the home base itself. Cabin walls needed to be sturdy and the roof needed to be well-sealed to keep the rain and snow out; if they weren’t, the lives of those inside were in grave danger. Anyone who saw the destruction left in the wake of the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh realizes how important safety and stability remain, centuries later.
The Rule of Law
Possibly the most lasting impression people have of American frontier days is that of the Wild West, where the rule of law was often pushed aside by gunfighters dueling in the streets and lynch mobs exacting justice before the accused could stand trial.
Cotton and textile associations around the world are working to ensure that the rules are followed in modern trading, led by the International Cotton Association. Just as bandits and outlaws wreaked havoc in the streets of America’s Old West, defaulters and uncooperative governments have brought chaos to the global marketplace in recent years. Ensuring that black-hatted villains can’t defy the accepted laws of society and then fade into the night without consequence is the only way to ensure that the markets remain safe for legitimate businesses.
Finding the Golden Nuggets
Of course, no one would have ever left the more established parts of the known world to face the uncertainties of the wilderness without a powerful incentive. For early American settlers, that incentive was the vast number of gold nuggets found in streams and mines. For modern cotton industry professionals, it’s the ability to base operations in a location that offers an abundance of workers and affordable input costs.
While the developing markets in Asia are the most obvious solution, some companies are looking in once-flourishing areas that later became textile ghost towns. Labor is still much more expensive in the West, but the reliability and dropping prices of energy in places like the United States often can be enough to offset the higher cost of skilled workers.
There are enough unknowns in the cotton and textile industries to justify cause for concern, but just as it was for American settlers who ventured out into the great unknown in search of a better life, those with the courage, dedication and ingenuity to take that first step will be the ones who pave the way for future greatness.