The conventional cultivation of cotton leads to massive environmental and health problems around the world. A sustainable alternative is certified organic cultivation. Sapna Arora looks at why cleaner cotton makes commercial sense.

Many people consider cotton to be the purest fibre in the world. In fact, cotton cultivation takes an enormous toll on the earth's air, water, and soil, and significantly affects the health of people living in cotton growing areas.

A small number of farmers are now choosing to grow cotton 'organically.' This means they eliminate toxic chemicals at every step of the growing process, by emphasising natural, biological methods which have far less impact on the environment.

Conventional cotton farming involves use of synthetic chemicals that seriously harm the environment, farm communities and workers.

Just take a look at your own T-shirt. Along with millions of others around the world you're probably wearing one, and it's probably soft and comfortable to wear. However, it takes about nine ounces of cotton to make one T-shirt, and to make these nine ounces an average of 17 teaspoons of synthetic fertilizers are used, plus three-quarters of a teaspoon of active ingredients like pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and defoliants.

Only 40 per cent of the cotton plant is comprised of fibre. The rest is seed, which is used to feed dairy and beef cattle, and is an ingredient in cookies, potato chips and prepared foods.

Reasons for switching to organic cotton
1: Retailers
Large retailers are profitably incorporating organic cotton into their garments - either with 100 per cent substitution or by blending with conventional fibres.

Patagonia in Ventura, California, and Nike, in Beaverton, Oregon are just two of the companies who have pioneered the organic cotton market.

Outerwear clothing retailer Patagonia started using organic cotton in 1994. The board of directors at Patagonia decided to eliminate conventional grown cotton by spring 1996. The company reduced its margins on most of the items so that the retail price would not exceed more then 2 per cent over conventional cotton.

Patagonia's organic cotton programme was a success because customers made the same choice as the retailer - to pay more now for organics rather than pay the hidden environmental costs down the road. It was also a success because cotton clothing is carefully thought out, and as a consequence, it sold well.

The shift to organic cotton meant that Patagonia had to invest considerable effort in understanding its supply chain and determining where it could adapt to organic cotton and where it had to find alternative suppliers.

The company can sympathise with the difficulties that larger clothing retailers face in trying to transform the whole of their complex supply chains. Some of these companies have started purchasing organic cotton but are not producing completely organic lines but are blending it with conventional cotton.

Patagonia further provided information to other apparel firms such as Marks & Spencer, Timberland and Nike. It didn't want to make use of organics a selling point; instead the company hoped the entire industry would switch over just because it's the right thing to do.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says of the company's switch to organic: "Given what we now know about conventional cotton, there is no going back on this decision. We are betting that we have enough loyal customers who will make the same choice we have made here at Patagonia: to pay more now for organics rather than the hidden, whopping environmental costs later."

2: Consumer preference
Consumers expect corporate responsibility as a matter of basic business practice, and organic cotton is a great way to implement it.

One of the key factors driving awareness and growth has come as a result of the booming organic food industry. Almost overnight this shed its health-food store skin to emerge a mainstream lifestyle grocery experience, offering convenient, upscale and extremely tasty offerings at major groceries dotting the national landscape.

Whole Foods Market, for example, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods, brought in $3.9 billion in sales in 2004. (In March this year, Whole Foods initiated its first venture into apparel and home products in its new Austin, TX-based store, featuring clothing from Under the Canopy as part of the new line-up.)

3: Forthcoming regulations
Possible bans on the most toxic agricultural chemicals, as well as potential regulations about the labelling of genetically engineered products, point to the need to develop sustainable, practical solutions for organically-grown cotton.

'Certified Organic' means the item has been grown according to strict standards that are verified by independent state or private organisations. Certification includes inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping, and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers meet the standards which have been set.

Legislation is already weakening the widespread use of insecticides and pesticides, leading to alternative research into genetically modified crops more resistant to pests and diseases - eradicating the need to use harmful insecticides.

4: Quality product differentiation
Most consumers who care about the environment also care about quality; organic cotton fibres provide the opportunity for market differentiation, particularly among companies with a high quality brand image.

Consumers prefer to pay more now for quality organics rather than paying for clothing with the hidden environmental costs.

5: Ecological direction
Companies taking ecological direction are gaining market advantages.

The best example of this is Nike. For cotton in Nike Organics products it uses third-party certifiers accredited by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) or IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements).

Organic certification helps ensure the cotton used has been grown according to organic agricultural practices, with a documentation process followed all the way from the farm, to bale certification, to the finished garment. Cotton purchased for both Nike's blended and 100 per cent certified organic programmes goes through these certification documentation processes.

Nike also works with the Organic Trade Association's Organic Fiber Working Groups on a voluntary project to develop harmonised standards for organic fibre certification in the United States. The expectation is that once the harmonised US standards are developed, they will catalyse the development of global harmonisation.

6: A cleaner approach
Each T-shirt made from 100 per cent organic cotton saves pounds of synthetic fertilizers and farm chemicals.

Switching from industrially grown and processed cotton to organically grown is a positive step forward, but doesn't completely solve the problem. Even when cotton is grown without toxic chemicals, it still uses an inordinate amount of water, and cannot be grown year after year without permanently depleting the soil.

When a cotton garment is worn out, it is usually thrown away. We have to dig deeper and try to make products that close the loop - clothing that can be recycled infinitely into similar or equal products. We have to accept the responsibility for what happens to each product when it reaches the end of its life cycle, just as a computer manufacturer should be responsible for what happens to its old model computers that end up in landfills.

Some of the fibre mills are actively working on using less toxic materials and processes. They work willingly because they believe this will create a more sustainable business model for them and for society.

Consumers can contribute in increasing awareness about organic cotton by asking clothing stores to offer organically grown cotton products, or at least to use organic cotton even in small amounts. Organic cotton blended with conventional cotton still increases organic cotton production and reduces pesticide releases into the environment.

Sapna Arora has several years' experience in sourcing fabrics and garments for some of the leading retailers. She currently works in the UK office of global apparel supply chain company and specialises in understanding the sourcing patterns of both US and EU businesses.