Organic Cotton: An Emerging Market

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Photo source: Flickr by Kamiekam

Of all the organic fibers/fabrics on the market today, organic cotton is by far the most popular. Here are some interesting and important facts about organic cotton and the certification process provided by the Organic Trade Association.

What is “organic cotton”?
‘Organic cotton is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-party certification organizations verify that organic producers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production.’

National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is one third party board tasked with assisting the assist the Secretary of Agriculture in developing standards for substances to be used in organic production. The NOSB a definition of Organic was passed by the NOSB at its April 1995 meeting in Orlando, FL.

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

How much organic cotton is grown globally?
‘In 2000-2001, international production was approximately 6,368 metric tons (slightly more than 14 million pounds, or 29,248 bales), grown in 12 countries, according to data from the Pesticide Action Network of the United Kingdom and from the Organic Trade Association (OTA). This represents about 0.03% of worldwide cotton production. Turkey and the United States were the leading producers of organic cotton, followed by India, Peru, Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Senegal, Israel, Greece, Benin and Brazil.

How much organic cotton is grown in the U.S.?
Based on OTA’s 2005 survey of U.S. organic cotton producers funded by Cotton Incorporated, farmers in four states harvested 6,814 bales (3,270,720 pounds) of organic cotton from 5,550 acres during 2004. This is an increase from the 4,628 bales harvested from 4,060 acres in 2003. Texas continues to lead the United States in organic cotton production, with limited acreage also planted in California, New Mexico, and Missouri. In 2005, U.S. farmers planted 6,577 acres of organic cotton. Harvest figures for 2005 are not yet available.’ Are they not? They must be available now…

How is the apparel industry involved with organic cotton?

‘Apparel companies are developing programs that either use 100 percent organically grown cotton, or blend small percentages of organic cotton with conventional cotton in their products. There are a number of companies driving the expanded use of domestic and international organic cotton. For a current list of OTA members with fiber products, visit The Organic Pages Online at http://www.ota.com/.’

What kinds of products are made using organic cotton?

Organic cotton fiber is used in ‘everything from personal care items (sanitary products, make-up removal pads, cotton puffs and ear swabs), to home furnishings (towels, bathrobes, sheets, blankets, bedding), children’s products (toys, diapers), [and] clothes.’ In addition, organic cottonseed is used for animal feed, and organic cottonseed oil is used in a variety of food products, including cookies and chips.

How fast is the organic fiber market growing?

In 2003, organic fiber sales in the US grew by 22.7 % to reach $85 million, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2004 Manufacturer Survey. Sales of organic women’s clothing during that period grew by 33.6%, while organic infant’s clothing and diaper sales grew 20.5 %. Sales of organic men’s clothing grew by 11 %, and children’s and teen’s clothing sales grew by 15.8 %. Meanwhile, sales of organic sheets and towels grew by 17.9 %, and those for organic mattresses and pillows increased 8.3 percent. Participants in the survey predicted that U.S. sales of organic fiber would grow an average of 15.5 percent each year for 2004 through 2008.

Issues with Organic Apparel Certification: One main issue with certification in green apparel is that certification focuses on the farming and raw fiber (agriculture) and not on the processing. In the case of bamboo and potentially other highly processed fibers this is a critical step, and has a significant impact not only on the environment but also on the cloth that we put on bare skin, including babies and young children. Apparently a change is underway to revise the definition of organic for apparel purposes but I have yet to see the final definition and certification process.

However it appears that OTA along with NOSB and several other interested organizations are in the process of creating standards for processing as well as growing organic fibers. In fact an international working group: Global Organic Textile Standard has been working on this issue for quite some time. Key partners include: International Association Natural Textile Industry (IVN), based in Germany, as well as Social Association (England), OTA (USA) and Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA) are all members.

At the same time, OTA also recognizes that the American Organic Fiber Processing Standards (AOFPS) remain as policy guidance for OTA members and others in the organic community of the United States and Canada. What are these standards exactly and is it possible to certified organic fiber processor? It is not super clear, but stay tuned for more information as I dig it up.

Another issue is that for some, the certification definition is too narrow. By only considering the environmental impacts, the certification avoids important issues related to social, cultural and economic values. I suppose this is one reason why we also have the Fair Trade certification process, which accounts for some of those issues. I am actually in favor of keeping the two elements separate because they are separate issues, and for those companies that are both socially as well as environmentally integrated, and go forth with both certification processes, it adds tremendous value to their brand and products.

More about the NOSB:
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, part of the 1990 Farm Bill, authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to appoint a 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The board’s main mission is to assist the Secretary in developing standards for substances to be used in organic production. The NOSB also advises the Secretary on other aspects of implementing the national organic program.

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Photo Source: Flickr by the purl bee (blue sky organic alpaca cotton)

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5 Comments

  1. October 23, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    your wblog is so nice
    thank you for very good post about organic cotton

  2. Harmony said,

    November 8, 2007 at 2:03 am

    For the record the GOTS does address the social aspect of the process which in my mind makes it the favored certification for such a global industry. Perhaps separate fair trade certification would be ideal but for small players in a large industry requesting our supply chain to get 2 separate costly certifications is no easy task. Until we can demand such action, at least the GOTS can give us some comfort in knowing the social aspect is being inspected by a 3rd party certifier.

    Rumor has it (from David Gagnon of the OTA last week at the OE conference) GOTS has a logo in the works (at last) and hopefully it will be revealed to the rest of us this month! I look forward to their being a symbol that consumers can look for when it comes to the processing of organic fibers.

  3. Ashutosh Jaiswal said,

    January 16, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Interesting and very very informative .
    I want to source out manufacturers of organic cotton sheeting fabrics in 30s, grey , 68 x 68 , width : 48inches.
    Also looking for organic terry towel manufacturers.

  4. April 20, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    [...] the crop to no pesticides and still yielding a productive, viable crop is no small feat). See Green Cotton for more information. • Better use of water management • Must be grown using methods and [...]

  5. November 28, 2011 at 8:52 am

    useful chart here for comparing sustainability of various textiles:
    http://oneless.tk/info.php

    such as:

    “Sustainability: Organic cotton is not grown using harmful pesticides so it is much kinder to the soil it inhabits, and is therefore much more sustainable than regular cotton. However, organic cotton still ranks a 3 on our scale because of the large amount of land and water it requires to grow. “


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