After the fanfare of the early 90s, the organic cotton industry is today taking a more commercial approach to bringing its product into the mainstream. Companies such as Nike, Levi Strauss and Patagonia have developed ranges with organic cotton, and the fibre is now being produced in 18 countries including the USA, Turkey, India, Peru and Uganda. Tania Casselle reports.

Organic cotton first came under the spotlight at the beginning of the 'caring, sharing 90s', when the green consumer emerged as a powerful force and the trend for all things ecological impacted every kind of product from detergent to cars.

The fashion industry was not slow to see its chance to turn Green into gold, and the "environmentally friendly" marketing angle was soon picked up by designers, retailers and manufacturers - some of whom were genuinely committed to the cause, others just going along for the ride. In time, of course, the natural fibre buzz was usurped by a shift towards techno fabrics, but despite the fact that Green fashion faded in the public eye, organic cotton didn't just go away. After the noisy revolution of the early 90s, a quiet evolution has continued as the organic cotton industry built a stronger supply structure, a broader customer base and a more commercial approach to bringing its product into the mainstream.

As a result, companies from Nike and Levi Strauss to Patagonia, Marks & Spencer and Katharine Hamnett have developed ranges with organic cotton. Organic cotton is now being produced in 18 countries including the USA, Turkey, India, Peru and Uganda.

Environmental push
Most of the push behind organic cotton originates in the United States where, according to the US Department of Agriculture, around 53 million pounds of toxic pesticides are applied each year to conventional cotton fields. This means that cotton accounts for 25 per cent of total pesticide usage.

The Sustainable Cotton Project also points out that with conventional farming methods it takes one pound of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to produce the three pounds of cotton needed to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Many of these chemicals are highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic, raising concerns about the health risks to farm workers as well as the contamination of the soil and threat to its long-term fertility.

Moreover, the organic cotton industry points out that cottonseed also goes into the food chain. In the US, around 60 per cent of the cotton harvest by weight is seed, which is fed to cattle including dairy cows, and also goes into cottonseed oil, which is used in biscuits, cake mixes and snacks. US sportswear company Norm Thompson is currently funding research into residual chemicals entering the food chain via conventional cottonseed.

The potential effect of non-organic cotton farming methods on the food chain is further drawn into question as the issue of genetically modified crops hits the headlines. According to Monsanto, at least 50 per cent of the United States' 13 million cotton acres was planted with genetically modified varieties in 1999, which means that it's only a matter of time before the GM debate turns to cotton and how cottonseed oil is used in food.

Inspired by the Sustainable Cotton Projects, students Justin Kennedy and Nobue Shinohara at the Academy of Art College featured organically grown fibres in their collections at this year's Academy of Art College annual fashion show.

Going Green

Patagonia's director of fabric development recommends:

1: Start with a few items in organic cotton and gain experience about sourcing, production, quality, pricing and marketing.
2:Appoint one production person to spearhead the organic project.
3: Identify products where organic cotton can add value to the customer, such as intimate apparel, kidswear or quality items with reasonable price elasticity.
4: Educate the entire company about why organic cotton is important.
5: Work with existing suppliers who understand the level of quality you require.
6: Factor in the year-in-advance lead time necessary to order sufficient quantities of organic cotton.
7: Assess the results of every trial, continually increasing the number of items and styles with organic cotton each season.

Nike's environmental action team recommends:
1: Analyse your cotton business: consider the volume of cotton you purchase; identify environmental goals (such as meeting clean air and water guidelines) and consumer preferences or pressures that would make organic cotton a logical extension of your sustainable design objectives
2: Select a point person with political influence within the company who can advocate for an organic program.
3: Create potential options for business managers to choose from to incorporate organic cotton in product lines.
4: Identify the benefits of pro-active efforts, such as market advantages, brand image enhancement or environmental objectives.
5: Choose and act on some easy-to-achieve successes, such as blending targeted items with up to 10 percent organic cotton.
6: Provide continual education for all departments within the company.
7: Blend with up to 10 per cent organic cotton fibres; it should have no impact on product quality whatsoever, and minimal impact to the bottom line.
8: Probe all aspects of garment production for environmental impacts, including raw materials, dyeing and finishing, air and water emissions, and develop a company-wide policy to reduce them.

Percentage of organic
Cost increase per million
F.O.B. cost increase per
3% Blend
10% Blend
55% Blend
80% Blend
100% Organic

Source: 'The Organic Cotton Site'.

Organic program
"As Nike is a major cotton purchaser, we saw a way to both support organic agriculture in each of the four regions where Nike does business and reduce the amount of harmful substances that were indirectly supported by our cotton purchase," says Heidi Holt, global environmental director for Nike. Nike currently runs a 3 per cent blended organic program for T-shirts (over 20 million in 1998), fleeces and sweatshirts, and aims to incorporate 3 per cent organic or transitional organic cotton into all Nike Apparel cotton products by 2010
"For the 1999 harvest, Nike purchased 800,000 pounds of certified organic and certified transitional organic cotton from the United States and approximately 66,000 pounds from Greece," says Holt.

Nike worked out it had a final FOB (Free On Board) cost of an only 2 cents more per garment in the organic cotton programme. But, interestingly, the company has opted not to label the cotton as organic at present.

"We chose not to market it because we weren't expanding the program to sell more products - we were expanding the program because it was the right thing to do environmentally," comments Holt. "Going forward, however, we will talk more publicly about our commitment to increase the visibility of organic agriculture and to allow our consumers to make a conscious choice to support the environment."

Patagonia is another major pioneer, having switched to 100 per cent organic cotton across all its sportswear ranges for men, women and children in 1996.

"We had the advantage of being 45 minutes from one of the largest cotton-growing regions in the world, so we were able to view the environmental impact with our own eyes - a very powerful experience," observes Jill Vlahos, director of fabric development at Patagonia.

"We currently use 1.5 million pounds of cotton as a company. It was difficult to change our supply chain because many of our vendors didn't know what organic cotton was and were concerned with potential processing problems.

"Once we found partners that understood the environmental benefits and worked with it a little bit, the process became much easier. We also knew there would be a cost increase. We explained that to our customers, and asked them to 'split the difference' with us - we'd lower our margins a bit, and slightly raise the cost of the product. Product by product, the retail prices increased between $2 and $10. Our hope is that as the organic cotton market increases, prices will lower."

Cost not a deterrent
Paul Schnepf at Swiss spinner Buhler asserts that the cost of organic cotton need not be a deterrent. "One kilogram of organic yarn costs DM 17.50 while regular yarn costs DM 14.60," he says. "So the difference of DM 2.90 per kilogram is minimal."

Buhler spins around 300 tonnes of American organic cotton a year for Patagonia and European fabric suppliers to Marks & Spencer. "We process organic cotton in exactly the same way as ordinary cotton," says Schnepf.

However, in order to meet the organic cotton standards, processors have to ensure that organics are kept segregated from the conventional yarns. This requires mills to ensure that there is no contamination from machinery or flying lint.

"We've worked hard to find cost-effective fabric suppliers and factories," says Don Serl, apparel product manager for Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) in Canada.

Under an initiative led by activewear buyer Anne Gillespie, MEC has shifted to 100 per cent organic cotton and now uses 100,000 yards of organic cotton shirting and 40,000 yards of canvas and twill a year.

"Although we were prepared to 'sharpen our pencils' to make this project possible, we have not had to cut our margins," maintains Don Serl. "Cost increases have mostly been passed along to our customers, but our retail prices still remain extremely attractive. Organic cotton is considerably more expensive - the figures I've been quoted are US$1.10 to US$1.35 per pound versus about US$0.75 for non-organic. But the yarn cost is only about one third of the fabric cost, with weaving and finishing each contributing another third each, and both those costs are the same with organics as with non-organics. So one might expect to see maybe a 10-20 per cent increase in fabric cost, but the fabric cost itself is only about one third of the cost of the finished garment. I don't accept that costs need to increase very much at all. We already have two years experience with a switch from beefy-Ts at $8 to organic Ts at $11 - sales have more than doubled."

"We have to thank Patagonia for sharing a lot of information about sources to help us make the transition," adds Serl. "They have been remarkable - totally committed to building the organic cotton business and entirely unconcerned about competition issues."

Quality and aesthetics
The finished organic product is generally perceived to be equal to conventional cotton in terms of quality and aesthetics.

"There's no way you can tell the difference," says Don Serl at MEC. "Although we hope the subtle 'MEC organics' label will add to the wearer's sex appeal…"

"With really high quality mills involved now like Parkdale Mills, the largest spinner in the US, quality is not an issue and the length, strength and colour is the same as non-organics," confirms Lynda Grose, consultant designer with a focus on ecology who works with Aid to Artisans and Patagonia as well as handling market outreach for the Sustainable Cotton Project. As the designer who spearheaded Esprit's ground-breaking Ecollection in the early 90s, she is well positioned to discuss the issues of organic cotton from raw material to finished garment.

"In the early 90s a lot of people were evangelical and very entrepreneurial but they were not necessarily designers or textile people and were not involved in the complete supply chain, so you did get poorer quality, higher prices, and it wasn't as good looking because it was often unbleached and undyed," observes Grose.

"In terms of fibre supply, there does still need to be a balance between supply and demand. However, if people really want to shift their business in a substantial way, and not just get a quick garment to market, there really isn't a problem with supply. Cotton growers have been working on farm efficiencies that reduce cost, and long-term commitment to farmers by companies like Patagonia and Nike have also reduced cost by creating a stronger and more secure infrastructure. Farmers don't want to plant organic cotton if they are going to get a repeat of 1995 when people pulled out and they had to sell their organics on the ordinary cotton market."

Farmers switching acreage to organics have to observe a 'quarantine' period of three years, when none of the disallowed chemicals are employed, before the cotton can be labelled organic. This transitional cotton is finding a market through partnerships with people like Marks & Spencer, which is blending transitional yields with ordinary cotton to minimise the higher costs, while also guaranteeing its own long-term supply of organics.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that organic cotton acreage in the US has grown from 3,290 in 1991 to 12,709 in 2000, it still only accounts for 0.1 per cent of the country's total cotton acreage.

Industry initiatives
It's not for the lack of initiatives by industry organisations. The Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) in California offers comprehensive information packs and cotton farm tours. The Pesticide Action Network, with international offices, and the Organic Fiber Council (OFC) in Massachusetts, have produced directories of organic cotton suppliers. OFC will also have a strong presence at the February 2001 Magic show in Las Vegas.

An important landmark came in summer 2000 when Cotton Incorporated overturned its policy of recognising only conventionally grown cotton and agreed to permit use of the Seal of Cotton and associated trademarks on organics. The criteria for eligibility, however, requires that licensees must not "publicly denigrate, criticise or otherwise negatively comment about cotton, cotton products or cotton production systems." The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is concerned that statements about pesticide use in conventional agriculture, for example, might be interpreted as a criticism.

"Manufacturers should be able to make truthful statements so that consumers better understand the environmental effects of their choices," comments
Katherine DiMatteo, OTA's executive director.

Clues as to who those consumers are can be found in OTA's recent Organic Fiber Shopper Study, conducted by The Hartman Group in the US. The study found that consumers buying organic fibre products generally purchase organic foods already, and have a mean average income of $47,000. Seventy per cent are female, 60 per cent are married, average household size includes 1.7 members, and 37 per cent have children under age 18.

"Ultimately it will all boil down to the customer, what are they wanting and what are they willing to pay for it? When the consumer wants something, industry will very quickly find a way to supply it," remarks Allen Terhaar, executive director of Cotton Council International (CCI) in Washington.
Although organics represents a tiny proportion of CCI's business, the organisation works at trade shows with companies selling organic cotton and also helps circulate the Organic Cotton Buyers Guide.

"Often organic cotton will cost more than conventionally produced cotton and there will be issues of vulnerability of the crop," continues Terhaar.

"Because the organic crop is smaller you can't guarantee the evenness of quality or quantity. With conventional cotton the crop is classed and there is a diversity within the crop, so if you want to specify the thickness or length of the fibre you can, even for large production runs. But with organics you don't have the same volume available to do that. It's not saying that one is better than the other, but there are a number of issues keeping organic cotton more specialised."

Terhaar says that when organic crops are surrounded by conventional cotton, they are protected from pest pressure. But he questions what will happen in terms of pest control if organic acreage expands.

"Can you really grow that amount of cotton under organic conditions? Also, if the manufacturer is sourcing organic cotton from other countries, are they going to be subject to the same strict controls as in the US or Europe for example? It's very complex and I don't think the consumer wants to get bound in at that level.

"Other than the activists, the consumer doesn't really know that much about organic cotton. In general the consumer has not been so concerned about genetically modified cotton because fibre is not a food area. The consumer will ultimately determine how big an area that is. Also, GM cotton really enhances the production of cotton without having to use chemical pesticides. These other means of production have been developed for good reasons."

Tania Casselle

Cotton Conference
Organic cotton will be touted at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences taking place in January 2001 in Anaheim, CA. In a session scheduled for January 13 as part of the Cotton Economics and Marketing Conference, Sandra Marquardt, coordinator of the Organic Trade Association's (OTA's) Fiber Council, will address US and international production and marketing trends for organic cotton. She will also release year 2000 per-state domestic organic cotton planted acreage data as well as analyses of 1990-2000 domestic organic cotton production trends, final 1999 yield data, and preliminary 2000 yield data. Initial results indicate US organic cotton production has increased 14-fold over its inception in 1990.

Following Marquardt's talk, three OTA-member companies - Nike Inc, Patagonia Inc and Genetic ID - will give presentations related to organic fibre. Patagonia and Nike representatives will speak about use of organic cotton in their sportswear lines.

For more information visit:

Organic Fiber Council Tel: +1 510 215 8841 (or see OTA website)
Organic Trade Association
Pesticide Action Network
Sustainable Cotton Project

Copies of the Organic Fiber Shopper Study can be purchased for $550 for OTA members ($625 for nonmembers) from OTA headquarters.
Contact: Annie Hassett at OTA: +1 413-774-7511, ext 12.