Does Organic Cotton Equal Organic Jeans?

Linda Loudermilk denim featured at http://girldir.com

By Brit

Apart from the lycra to make skinny jeans fit supernaturally tight, jeans are made of cotton. Cotton, the most popular natural fiber in the world, is also one of the most pesticide-dependent crops, making a switch to organic cotton not just desirable, but vital.

In response to consumer demand, more and more farmers are converting to organic cotton. The current definition of organic cotton means that which is grown organically, in the same way as a food crop. Once the cotton has been picked, however, there are no standards for organic processing.

Cotton processing workers are exposed to heavy machinery, and cotton dust which irritates the lungs. And then there’s the weaving, then cutting and sewing, and dying of the garments. The rise of organically grown cotton is wonderful, but if the workers who process it and sew and dye the garments are being subjected to the same low standards as regular garment workers traditionally are, then we have not come all that far.

Organic cotton is almost always ginned and milled on the same machines as regular cotton, which would imply those who process it labor under the same conditions. “Ginning” has nothing to do with Tanqueray – it is the process where cotton seeds are removed from the cotton fibers.

And then, once the fabric is made, and the jeans are cut and sewn, they are dyed, and then depending on the style, distressed, faded, resin coated, using chemicals and enzymes. Synthetic dyes are notorious pollutants and their use consumes several gallons of water to dye one pair of jeans. White and pale colored jeans no better – they are bleached.

Despite the popularity of organic t-shirts and baby clothes, organic denim is still nowhere near as prolific as you would expect, especially considering most women’s wardrobes revolve around the perfect pair (or eight) of jeans.

Here’s a look at some high-profile and lesser-known organic denim labels.

Levi’s organic denim at shown at treehugger.com


Levi’s launched the Eco range of organic cotton jeans in 2007, but how ecological are they? Is it possible to make a fairly traded organic pair for $70? Compare, the Levi’s Capital E premium jeans, hand sewn, dyed with natural indigo, and hand processed with minimal chemicals, which retail at $198.

Edun denim featured at http://www.tobi.com

Bono, Ali Hewson and Rogan Gregory brought organic, fairly traded jeans to international attention with Edun. The brand emphasises fair trade and fair working conditions in their factories. Edun’s signature inky blue denim styles are worthy of the amount of times they have graced red carpets.

Rogan Gregory’s other lines, Rogan, and Loomstate, also use organic fabrics, “All Loomstate factory partners are required to adhere to a code of conduct and Terms of Engagement in our company manufacturing agreement. These factories must use the highest environmental and labor standards, controlling factory pollution, and enforcing fair labor as the cornerstone of the effort.” Edun and Loomstate jeans retail for $150-$200, with Rogan jeans running around $250.

Kuyichi denim at http://www.inhabitat.com


Kuyichi are a Dutch company who are trying to make the field-to-store process as ecological and sustainable as possible. Kuyichi jeans are made of fairly traded Peruvian cotton. The cotton farmers are partners in the company, and they get to voice problems, and share in the profits. Not officially available in the US (yet) but can be obtained through retailers like ASOS who ship to the States. The desirable lightweight boyfriend trousers are $150, comparable with other premium denim brands.

Good Society denim featured at http://www.slingandstones.com


Slings and Stones American grown (and Japanese processed – but let’s not pick about air miles) organic cotton skinny jeans can out-skinny the best of them. The slim-cut denims are fair trade, and the neat detailing, particularly the zig-zag yoke, sets these apart. I love the square button and rivets, all handmade and antiqued in India from 24K gold. Anyone else noticed the trend for gold hardware on designer denim? I can’t decide if it’s tasteful or tacky.

Sharkah Chakra denim found at http://www.hippyshopper.com


Sharkah Chakra jeans are gorgeous, made with handpicked cotton, woven on hand looms in India, and signed by the person who made them. They have pretty pocket detailing, a beyond-fabulous fit, and more of that gold hardware. They “lay claim to having created the greenest jeans available in the world of fashion”. A neat touch is the option to order your size with a variety of inseams, but then I would expect a certain amount of customization for the $330 price tag.

ROMP, a British design duo in the process of conquering Los Angeles, claim to be the ‘World’s First Soil Association Certified and Global Organic Textile Standard Certified Couture Fashion House,’ with their body-conscious dresses and denim. Their innovative website offers you a chance to trace where the garment was sewn, the fabric processed, (with vegetable dyes and natural bleaches) and the cotton grown. The $340 white cotton wide-leg jeans are on my dream-big-wish-list for this summer. I would be skipping the paradoxical accompanying fox-tail though. (Note: their glitzy website should not be viewed on anything other than broadband, or your internet browser will suffer the same fate as the fox.)

$300 pairs of jeans, however worthy, are just not in the budget of most people. Here’s a label to watch out for: Good Society, who “present an affordably priced, forward thinking collection that is fully sustainable – both ecologically and socially”. Good Society organic, fair trade jeans run around $100 and their sleek, clean style is what I’ll be choosing for my summer denim purchase. A raw denim indigo skinny pair would be perfect in my wardrobe.

Organic jeans – true, all the way from cotton seed to wardrobe organic jeans – do exist. Independent companies who know that if they take the lead to produce jeans with the least footprint possible, then people who are equally committed to living lightly on the planet will buy them, and other designers and manufacturers will be inspired to follow.

We’ve forgotten how much work it is to make things by hand. Making one pair of jeans involves an incredible amount of work, and the price of a fairly-traded, organic pair reflects what it actually costs to pay people a living wage to plant grow, harvest, sort, gin, mill, weave, cut, sew, dye and process one pair of jeans.

It’s hard to stop thinking about jeans as a garment for the masses, as they have been throughout their history. But perhaps it’s time to respect what actually goes into one pair of jeans, and instead of buying one, or two, or three cheap jeans, choose and love one organic pair.

What is your favorite pair of organic jeans? Tell us about them….greencottonblog@gmail.com

Vegan Apparel: what it is and where to get it

Photosource: Natalie Portman’s Te Casan

By Erin Dale

To some, vegan fashion may sound like an oxymoron. One living the vegan lifestyle makes a point to avoid any animal products, whether for food or clothing; so for clothes to be truly vegan, materials like wool, leather, and even silk are strictly forbidden. Yes, your American Eagle jeans or canvas Keds may technically be considered vegan, but there’s more to it than that… True vegans are also environmentalists—one of the most effective ways to reduce your personal carbon emissions is to simply not eat meat. Compassion for animals extends to the ethical choices vegans make, including what to wear.

So what is vegan clothing exactly? Technically, its anything that doesn’t involve the use of animal products or by-products. By definition, synthetic fibers and conventional fabrics such as conventional cotton are OK and considered ‘vegan,’ However, if we also consider the fact that veganism also embraces environmentalism (as a philosophy and way of life), then synthetics and conventional fabrics would be excluded, or at least frowned upon.

Where can I find vegan clothing? When it comes to clothing, the term “vegan” may conjure up images of burlap slacks or jelly sandals, but there are plenty of fashion lines and enterprising celebrities attempting to bridge the gap between fashion and veganism. Of course, celebrity designers like Stella McCartney have been offering chic vegan wares for years. But vegan fashion has even been in the headlines lately, since Natalie Portman teamed up with specialty retailer Té Casan to design her own line of vegan shoes. Singer Leona Lewis, a hardcore vegan, is rumored to be starting an ethical, budget-friendly clothing line.

You don’t have to be a hippie or scour secondhand clothing racks to score cute vegan finds (though shopping vintage never hurts!). For the animal-loving fashionista, ethically-responsible threads are just a browser click away. Greenpeople.org lists umpteen links for eco-friendly fashion, with plenty of vegan sites in the mix. However, many of the vegan options look more “hippie chick” than “green chic.” I’ve narrowed the search to my favorite sites for clothes, shoes and accessories.

Alternativeoutfitters.com is a vegan’s haven for cute, cruelty-free fashions. Not all of the products listed are strictly vegan (there are Madden Girl shoes featured, for instance which are technically vegan but not necessarily eco-friendly), but many are eco-friendly. This is a great resource for vegan bags, wallets, and graphic tees, but fashion-forward vegans may crave something a little more high-end. NYArtificial offers trendy handbags made with high-tec, non-toxic materials, priced from $69 to $300 or more. Their wares include shopping totes, evening bags and briefcases. I like Bossa’s handbag collection even more: try shopbossa.com for everything from hobos to clutches.

Panda Snack sells luxury bamboo knits, and the fashions (for men and women) could not be cuter. Visit pandasnack.com to view the collection and find a list of retailers near you (I plan to look at them up close at Envi in Boston). I especially love their short pink dress with pleats and rouched sleeves.

While the vegan concept sounds great on paper, one must caution against jumping on the band wagon too quickly and trading ‘cruelty-free’ for carbon-heavy processing. Since vegan clothing does not require ‘organic processing’, its relatively easy to label a synthetic blouse made from petroleum by-products, blended with conventional cotton and made in a sweatshop, as ‘vegan’ since technically it is. However, is it actually good for the environment, good for you and good for humanity? That’s where your savvy shopping skills step in and hopefully the above resources may come in handy.

What does vegan clothing mean to you? Should we have a certification process to help identify items that are truly vegan? Tell us what you think greencottonblog@gmail.com

Eco-Factory in Sri Lanka: The Cutting Edge of Green Manufacturing

Source: CS Monitor, courtesy of MAS eco-factory Depicts a rendering of the lingerie factory in Sri Lanka (now complete) runs on renewable energy and employs 45,000 workers.

CS Monitor announced last week the completion if the first ever eco-sustainable apparel factory in Sri Lanka. Built with evaporative cooling technology, solar panels and hydro power, the factory is the first of its kind in Asia (and perhaps even worldwide), setting a new standard in apparel manufacturing.

One problem with organic and sustainable garments today is that the fabrics may be green, but so often the manufacturing is anything but (not to mention a majority are still made in sweatshop conditions). The MAS factory solves this problem by greenifying HOW the clothes are made and dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of that part of the process.

With energy-efficient task lighting, low-emission permitting glass (which cuts down on heat transfer), and traditional applications such as courtyard design and tree plantings, the factory is an oasis of low carbon production amidst an industry of profuse waste (e.g. see Cambodian garment factory dumping its refuse in its backyard for passersby to scourge for materials).

Costing 25% more than the average garment factory, the MAS plant will cut and sew lingerie for a number of labels. So far according to the authors, there isn’t a mass retail company out there yet that has developed a full sustainability standard that accounts for the garment across every step of production.

We have the organic certification, but so often that is for the fabric itself and may exclude steps in the production process that occur after the certification. Furthermore, carbon footprint is not a factor separately considered in that certification process. For example, a garment may be made with organically grown cotton, but if coal-fired boilers and poor treatment of waste- water or toxic dyes are used later on, then the garment ultimately has a huge carbon footprint and potentially damaging effects on the environment.

As Linda Greer, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist who specializes in toxic chemical pollution in textiles production notes,

‘true sustainability requires independent certification, extensive consumer-education campaigns, and a desire and ability to review entire supply chains.’

I could not agree this statement more. With certification we move toward a more informed consumer base as well as regulated supplier market, and move away from haphazard ‘green and socially responsible’ labeling with little meaning.

We all know that green-ification of goods costs more and without the strict certification and labeling in place and high levels of consumer awareness, it is very difficult to justify those additional costs. So the question is, how is it that a company like MAS is able to afford and/or justify such a substantial up-front investment?

According to the author, ‘economies of scale is one answer’ but in addition, MAS will arguably save money in the long (and even short run) in energy costs. Furthermore, by being the first to commit at this level, they will gain credibility and loyalty among consumers who are increasingly Green and socially conscious.

Just as Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, reflects in his new book ‘Stirring it Up,’ nearly all of the green decisions he and his company made in its 25 year history proved economical and beneficial for the business in the long run. I might add, in an era of rising fuel costs, how can sustainable, energy efficient architecture and systems not be beneficial? By leveraging energy efficient solutions such as solar, hydro and other technologies, MAS will be ahead of the pack in less than a few years if energy prices continue on their current track.

See CS Monitor for more information.

The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part II


Photo source: Keetsa.com

For the first part of this post see Part I. This post is in response to last week’s NY Times Style section article on the world’s cheapest dress.

So lets take a closer look at the first 10 miles of apparel production. For a garment to be sold at a price as low as $8.98 – guess what the fabric had to cost per yard before dying – a heck of a lot cheaper than that! Probably less than a dollar per yard. Furthermore, we must also think about how many pesticides were spilled into waterways and the food chain as a result of the cotton grown. In addition, how many children were employed to pick that cotton or spray the pesticides? How many laborers were paid insufficient wages and make the fabric and what kinds of dyes were used? For more information on the real costs of cotton, see White Gold: the true costs of cotton production.

I was at a trade show recently in Las Vegas recently and stopped by the sourcing section to talk to some vendors and visit with sustainable designers. As it turns out, organic fabrics cost anywhere from $11 to $50 per yard. Some online retailers and wholesalers are available at Harmony Art and Near Sea Naturals so you can see for yourself. This is a big difference between conventional! No wonder few retailers are talking about moving in this direction in a big way.

Yet at the same time, organic cotton follows a bare minimum of environmental and social standards to ensure resource management and human rights compliance. Furthermore, as certified organic fabrics, they meet a whole set of criteria at every step in the production process – that ensures they are good for the environment and good for you. For more on differences, see Organic v.s Conventional.

These fabrics cost more because guess what? It costs more to make a good product. Don’t be fooled by cheap prices. There is definitely something to be said for economies of scale and just-in-time inventory, but there is a limit to how low one can go with out sacrificing the environment or humanity along the way.

In general, higher priced organic cotton reflects the TRUE cost of producing materials in alignment with environmental conservation and sustainability. Furthermore, the natural resources used and conserved in the process arguably last longer – so the good news is we can be ‘buying dresses’ for a lot longer! Plus, we will have less contaminated waterways and ecosystems and our great grandchildren may actually live to see some still thriving elements of our natural world.

Be a smart consumer. Ask questions and be aware of supply chain steps and demand that your clothing fair, environmentally smart, good for you & the world. You know something is wrong when 2 lattes cost more than the dress you are wearing (thanks to Steve Allen’s comment).

Remember: we vote with our wallets. The checkout line is the biggest voting machine in America, and in the world actually. So, next time you are at the check out line, ask yourself, could this really be this cheap? If your honest answer to yourself is no, then don’t buy it! I know its tempting to buy cheap goods, but if you don’t need it and can’t afford the ‘smarter’ one, simply don’t get it.

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The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part I

Photosource: Tony Cenicola for The New York Times

Maybe you read the article this week in the NY Times Style section on Steve & Barry’s incredibly low prices such as the $8.98 Sarah Jessica Parker dress?

Well even if not, the story raises some very interesting and important issues. I must admit, that after reading the article, I was left feeling a bit depressed and confused.

What is missing from this model? How can a dress of this caliber (e.g., designed by Sarah Jessica Parker, who obviously gets a cut from each garment) sell for $8.98 and STILL make a profit for Steve & Barry? What is missing from the economic model? Is this a classic case of market externalities in which there are a number of negative costs spilled out into the marketplace and more broadly into our environment that somehow get absorbed elsewhere now or in the future? Where are these additional costs getting absorbed? (and by the way, Steve & Barry’s is not the only company that can get clothing so cheap to make one’s eye’s pop – see also, Forever 21, Wal-Mart, Target).

What bothered me the most however is the fact that the company’s executives declared ‘ absolutely not’ to the notion that their clothes are made under sweatshop conditions. In fact, the management states openly that they ‘monitor [their] subcontractors carefully and demand ethical business practices,’ which I do not doubt. I bet they are telling the truth and that their subcontractors are complying with whatever local laws they need to comply with. So where is the missing link in this puzzle?

Having delved into the issues of organic and fair trade clothing production for quite some time now, I have a few conclusions and questions.

(1) When Steve & Barry and others talk about ethical business compliance, are they speaking to a very specific context: e.g., the country in which they are manufacturing the clothing under their subcontractor’s jurisdiction or international fair labor laws? I would fathom to say the later. For example, when a company declares they are compliant – that is with the local labor laws in whichever developing or other country they are subcontracting to (eg Kenya or China). If a subcontracted factory is either of those two mentioned countries (which we know they often are), we can be assured that human rights compliance, fair labor law enforcement and environmental stewardship is minimal to zilch. So the question: whose laws are we/they complying with? What is certain however is that companies like Steve & Barry’s are not member certified by accredited Fair Trade monitoring bodies such as the Fair Trade Federation and/or the European Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO). If they were, they would publicize that. We do know that these organizations set forth established criteria for fair wages and labor requirements in tune with international humanitarian standards, so if that standard is met –we can be assured some level of transparency. If not, then who knows? It’s a bit of a big black box.

(2) The last mile. Secondly, the other gaping hole appears to be in what I would like to term the ‘last mile’ of retail. This ‘last mile in the supply chain train’ is the point at which a majority of major brands and retailers step into the picture. This is where accountability begins and consumer awareness starts. But what about the first ten miles? What happens there? Do we even know? What sorts of compliance measures have been put in place, what environmental and social accountability exists – who is doing what and how is it done?

It may be fair to say that a majority of major American brands are primarily responsible for the ‘last mile of production and branding’ in the apparel industry, and not necessarily part of (nor want to be) privy to earlier steps in the supply chain. This has advantages for retailers and disadvantages for consumers. When it comes to accountability, who wants to be responsible for production starting with cotton growing, when you can take responsibility for just the last stitch on the cloth? By the way, there is a reason why less than 5% of global cotton production is organic. No one wants to take responsibility for the environment that much. This is one of the key reasons why the garments can get as cheap as they are, e.g., $8.98. Importantly, organic certification itself includes compliance with fair labor practices, so by gaining that certification, one also tackles the other issue simultaneously. But guess what – the demand starts with us – consumers. If we become more aware and we demand it, they will do it. We need to be better informed. Furthermore, as more and more companies take on this socio-enviro responsibility, the fabrics will get less expensive. Its that simple – but we must demand it.

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Stay tuned for Part II….coming soon!

Channel Tackles Environmental Justice: The Good Fight

Image source: Sundance Channel

Sundance Channel is now launching a new series on environmental justice called ‘The Good Fight’. They are calling for all local stories on what people are doing in their area to address environmental issues. I just entered my story on their site under the name of Jute & Jackfruit at http://www.sundancechannel.com/ecommunity/#/ecommunityMap//

I encourage you to enter your story too onto their community map. Check out what other people are doing across the country. Be a part of the change.

They also had a few interesting video clips on their site. I am personally not a big TV person, but am partial to video clips on the web, so if you have a moment, worth checking out some of their ‘green-oriented’ programs.

FYI there is also an upcoming episode on the greening of fashion, “Big Ideas for a Small Planet: Fashion” Tuesday, May 6th. 9:00pm e/p

Summary of that program: Environmental consciousness has hit the fashion world in a big way; from T-shirts and jeans to haute couture, style is coming to mean sustainable fabric and earth-friendly manufacturing practices. In this episode, we’ll meet several men and women who are bringing green to fashion, clothing stores and to the dry cleaners, too.

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Organic Cotton vs. Conventional: What’s the difference?

Photosource: NYTimes.com/2005

There are a number of important differences between conventional and organic cotton. Starting from the tilling of the soil to the selection of seeds, labor paid and water used, organic cotton farming requires significant investment of time and resources to radically overhaul conventional cotton growing methods.

Cotton is a crop that attracts a wide range of insects (eg cutworm, cotton bollworm, tobacco bollworm, army worm, loopers, aphids, whitefly, spider mite among others). This is one of the reasons why it is one of the largest pesticide dependent crops in the world.

The following table outlines some of the major differences at each stage of the growing process. Sources used for this table include: National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Organic Exchange, Organic Trade Association (OTA), and Harmony Art Organic Designs. For more information on organic cotton certification, please visit OTA or OneCert.

ORGANIC VS. CONVENTIONAL COTTON COMPARED

Click to enlarge images. The following chart (2 pages) was created for Green Cotton using the sources mentioned above.

For a similar chart by Harmony Art Ogranic Designs, please visit her beautiful website: http://www.harmonyart.com/

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Organic Cotton: Easing the Transition

Photo source: looporganic.com

It is clear that producing organic cotton, especially certified organic cotton, costs more. The transition from conventional growing to organic growing can be a significant burden on the small to medium size farmer.

While it is true that certified organic cotton can receive a price premium, worth the cost of investment, the process of certification can take months to years. Meanwhile, the farmer must invest thousands of dollars in transforming its farming practices to meet the certification requirements.

Organic farming upgrades include:
• Transition to zero pesticide use (FYI cotton happens to be one of the highest-pesticide dependent crops in the world so transitioning 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 materials that have a low impact on the environment.
• Farming production systems must replenish and maintain soil fertility.
• Farming must reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers; and,
• Organic farming must build biologically diverse agriculture.

While the above list of organic farming requirements are all terrific, they are, as one can imagine, incredibly costly. Unless a farmer can ensure that the new crop will yield the price premium it deserves, transitioning over to these methods could mean the end of their business.

We have all read lately about the 3 and 4 fold surge in organic cotton demand. For example, organic cotton sales, not including other organic fibers, reached $1.1 billion in 2006 and is projected to double to $2+ billion in 2007 (Organic Exchange 2007). More and more retailers are demanding use of organic fabrics, including some of the largest ones (e.g. Wal-Mart, Barney’s and Target). At the same time, the supply can not easily keep up with demand, especially when certified organic farming can take years to establish.

As noted in the above requirements, it can be very risky for a farmer to transition too quickly unless they can be assured that there is a buyer. Furthermore, because the organic transition can take years to complete, the in between years mean higher costs for farmers and potentially low returns if not going out of business.

There are some retailers however who are recognizing this problem, AND in addition to being benevolent, happen to be the largest potential buyers of the organic cotton themselves. As such they are willing to step in and ease the transition for farmers by buying their transition product at the premium price. To be specific, Wal-Mart recently offered to pay transition farmers, those that are converting their farming practices from conventional to organic, the premium price for organic, even though their product is not yet certified. Side question: Is Wal-Mart going to label this product in their stores as organic cotton? This is one issue, since there is A LOT of organic cotton on the market that is not truly certified organic. Suppliers tend to overuse the term for the benefit of marketing, without communicating the whole truth as to whether it is CERTIFIED or not. This is a side note, but something for consumers to be aware of when they shop for organic clothing…

All in all, by Wal-Mart paying the interim premium price, it helps the farmers lower their risk, remain in business, AND be well-positioned to provide the increased supply needed of organic cotton to buyers such as Wal-Mart and Barney’s who want the organic cotton.

Note: Organic Certification requires a 3rd party organization to verify that farmers are using the methods and materials allowed in organic certification. Find out more about organic cotton certification at the Organic Trade Association .

You can also check out OneCert, one of the oldest and most reputable certification organizations on the market: http://www.onecert.net/

You can read more on this particular issue at Reuters.

Pangaya: Pioneer of Online Green Apparel to Close

pangaya.gif

After four years of serving the e-commerce marketplace, Sean and Susan Bartlett recently announced that they will be closing up their Pangaya online shop. According to a correspondence with TreeHugger, the reason is that the company is not returning as much on their investment at this point, as hoped. The company will be missed by many, as a convenient, reliable source for some of the most fashionable, sustainable designs out there: e.g. Stuart and Brown, Ecoganik, Blue Canoe, UNDESIGNED, and others.

While on the one hand, statistics indicate that demand for organic cotton, and organic fibers such as bamboo, in general keeps increasing, the reality is that the green apparel market is still challenging to be profitable. Given the myriad of style, brand, price, convenience and other variables that factor into women’s clothing choices, it is no small feat to get that equation right for on-line shoppers. Being green, does not indicate sure fire success, and even being stylish does not, as Pangaya has proven.

Pangaya is a good example of a company that provided very stylish clothing at a very reasonable price in a convenient manner. If they could not create a sustainable business model, then what does this mean for others starting out or already in the early stages? Time will tell, but as demand for all natural fibers such as organic cotton, bamboo, soy, hemp and even organic silk and wool, increases, hopefully new companies will continue to enter the market and prove otherwise. We must thank Susan and Sean for carving the brave path with Pangaya, making it easier for others to follow in their footsteps.

All inventory will be marked down up to 80% until it is depleted, so buy your favorite designs now at Pangaya.

Organic Cotton: An Emerging Market

cotton-flower.jpg

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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