World Cotton Trade in Brief

Keys to understanding the world cotton trade and the importance of quality and quantity controls throughout the supply chain.

Cotton has always occupied an important place in the international trade of raw materials.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), and despite the expected declines due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 40.6 million bales will be traded during the 2019/2020 season1, which will be equivalent to 8.8 million tons of cotton, or a third of world production.

India, China, the United States and Brazil alone account for three quarters of this world production. In order, the United States, Brazil and India are also the main exporters of the commodity.

China, on the other hand, does not export its production, but is expected to be the largest importer (18% of the world total). It will be followed very closely by Bangladesh (17%) and Vietnam (16%), which have become world centers of clothing production and depend almost entirely on cotton imports to run their textile industry.

The place of African cotton in world trade

White gold plays a major role in African economic development. For some countries, such as Mali, it constitutes an important part of the GDP, and is often the main export product 2.

According to USDA, West African countries (mainly Benin, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso) are expected to account for about 12% of global exports in the 2019/2020 season.

The African sector has good potential for growth in world trade, despite the physical distance separating it from the main importers - which implies longer transport- and the possible vagaries of the weather having a strong impact on this tropical crop.

Firstly, thanks to the fact that most of the production is destined for export (almost 90% on average for the above-mentioned countries), the expected export volumes are unlikely to suddenly decrease to the benefit of domestic consumption, as it can happen in India or China for example 3 through various economic mechanisms such as export taxes.

Moreover, the governments of most of these countries are putting in place favorable policy conditions to increase production by increasing land area and improving productivity, whether through technology, soil and input management, and crop training 4.

Finally, African cotton is known for its good quality: harvested by hand, the fiber better retains its characteristics.

What does the value of cotton depend on?

Most transactions between sellers and buyers of cotton follow the rules laid down by the ICA (International Cotton Association) 5. In a contract of this type, the parties agree, among other things, on the quantity, quality and weight of the goods to be shipped.

Thus, parameters that give an indication of the quality of the fiber are specified, such as micronaire (which measures fineness and maturity) or strength. Depending on the future use of the purchased cotton, the values of these parameters will vary. The monetary value of cotton is therefore directly related to the characteristics of its fibers, which themselves depend on many factors such as more or less favorable growing conditions.

With regard to weight, it is interesting to note that according to Cotecna’s experts about 85% of the cotton exported abroad is sold on the basis of its net weight at destination (“net landed weights final basis”), which will therefore be considered as the final weight for the transaction. In other words, if the weight at destination is different from the weight announced in the contract, one of the parties will have to compensate the other financially.

Therefore, it is essential to be able to control the weight and quality of the cotton at each stage of its production and transport.

Monitoring the quality and weight of cotton from origin to destination: the essential role of an inspection and testing company

Third-party inspection and testing services (“TIC”) companies’ role is indeed to facilitate transactions between sellers and buyers by helping them to meet their contractual obligations, particularly those related to the quality, quantity and weight of the cotton traded.

Cotecna, as an independent and internationally renowned TIC company, is present throughout the world and offers a wide range of tailor-made services to verify cotton in all its forms - raw cotton balls, cotton yarn, waste, etc. - from the plantation of origin, through storage, land and sea transport, to its destination.

Upstream, Cotecna offers crop assessment services, including for example maturation and yield prognostics, or identification and evaluation of the incidence of plagues and diseases.

During the harvest, inspectors give information about the balance of harvested area, real production and balance of estimated yield. They also monitor ginning operations.

Before cotton is shipped, they perform warehouse and storage conditions verification, as well as stock monitoring. These operations include for instance goods in-outtake supervision, verification of segregation conditions, goods identification, documentation checking and volume measurements.

While cotton is leaving inland warehouses to port terminals, experts will supervise the loading of trucks, including the verification of the packaging conditions of bales; the inspection of the containers suitability (especially their tightness, cleanliness and odor); the monitoring of the stuffing process and the sealing of the containers.

Inspectors also supervise weighing operations, either bale by bale or by weighbridge, including the verification of scales.

At the ports of origin and destination, Cotecna supervises loading and discharge operations. It includes the supervision of the seal-breaking and unsnuffing of containers, bales tallying & weighing. Cotecna experienced surveyors will also perform damage surveys and provide recommendations in order to mitigate potential losses.

At every of the above-mentioned steps, Cotecna performs sampling and testing as per recognised international standards, or any other specified requirements. Cotecna’s surveyors take representative samples which are sent to accredited laboratories. Physical and chemical tests are performed, including:

  • SITC (Standardization of Instrument Testing of Cotton) and HVI (High Volume Instrument) testing
  • Trash testing
  • Moisture
  • Manual staple
  • Micronaire testing etc.

All these operations aim at ensuring cotton is handled with the highest integrity, thus facilitating financial transactions and relationships between parties. This helps them minimize risks due to delay, damages, weight loss claims & quality disputes.

For further information, please contact Cotecna’s Global Cotton Center at


1 USDA, “Table 05A Cotton Supply and Distribution MY 2019/20”, April 2020 -
2 AFCOT, Production de coton en Afrique, 18/06/2019 -
3 RFI, Le Bangladesh, devenu le premier importateur mondial de coton, veut étendre ses achats de coton africain, Claire Fages, 17/04/2017 -
4 AFCOT, Production de coton en Afrique, 18/06/2019 -
5 ICA Contract Form -