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America down to its last 100 cotton mills


Once so key to the plantation economy of the US Deep South that politicians sometimes referred to their diplomatic strategy simply as “King Cotton,” the crop’s demand from US manufacturers is on an unrelenting – and accelerating – decline. There were nearly 900 US cotton mills operating around the time of the Chicago expo in 1893, and many more in 1900s.That number is today around 100, the National Cotton Council estimates.
With domestic textile manufacturing nearly gone, cotton farmers who are this month starting to sow millions of acres from California to the Carolinas are less likely than ever to find a buyer for their next harvest at home. This year, US textile mills are expected to process the least cotton in 139 years. American farmers continue to plant the fibrous shrub for overseas buyers, but even that has its challenges: US cotton exports are on track to fall for a third straight year, putting No. 2 exporter Brazil within striking distance of the top spot.
Competition from cheaper overseas production and the adoption of synthetic materials are behind the textile industry‘s domestic decline. In 2016, Congress amended the 1930 Tariff Act to allow importers to ship in customers’ orders valued below $800 duty-free. This, exemption, along with the Covid-era boom in e-commerce, has allowed foreign fast-fashion companies like Shein to make major inroads.

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