This year’s Garden Collection from Swedish retailer H&M highlighted what the company calls its “modern, sustainable look.” Made from organic cotton and decorated with bold floral patterns redolent of “chlorophyll-green gardens” and “sundrenched landscapes,” the women’s-wear line was aimed at the growing number of eco-minded consumers. But H&M’s green marketing plans hit a snag when the Financial Times Deutschland reported in January that cotton marketed as organic and sold by H&M, and other retailers, had been contaminated by genetically modified (GMO) cotton, which violates organic certification standards.
H&M and organic cotton trade organizations scrambled to explain what might have happened on the Indian farms where the cotton was produced. For its part, H&M said, “There’s no reason to believe that the organic cotton used in H&M garments was grown using GMO seeds.” Yet the controversy highlighted how sustainable textiles like organic cotton have become an indelible part of the retail landscape and consumer consciousness. It also raised questions about the booming worldwide organic cotton industry, and how that cotton is produced and certified and makes its way from producers — mostly in developing countries — to stores. “There’s a lot more behind the organic label than what the label suggests,” says LaRhea Pepper, an organic cotton farmer and senior director at Organic Exchange, a Texas nonprofit that promotes organic textiles. “It’s more complex than you can imagine.”
Organic cotton is certainly the sustainable textile of the moment. Global sales of organic cotton products grew to more than $3 billion in 2008, from under $250 million in 2001, as retailers ranging from eco-boutiques to Walmart — now the world’s largest purchaser of organic cotton — expanded inventory to include jeans, T-shirts, baby clothes and bed linens, among other products. While these organic products and the fiber that went into them represent less than 1 percent of the global cotton market, the “purity” appeal of organic has resonated with consumers.
For the most part however, purity is only part of the organic story. Organic certification standards are voluntary and apply most rigorously to production methods, which ban the use of GMO seeds, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides, and prescribe strict soil management and crop rotation standards. The standards don’t always cover issues such as labor conditions and what happens along the supply chain, which for garments is lengthy.
“Organic is perceived as the pinnacle of sustainability, when it actually only addresses one indicator — toxicity,” explains Lynda Grose, an associate professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, who teaches sustainability and fashion. As demand for organic cotton grows and retailers ramp up sourcing and manufacturing, she and others argue that the industry must address a wider range of concerns. “Organic is a pillar of sustainability, but we should go beyond organic to a conceptual framework for total sustainability,” Grose suggests.
A number of organizations, companies, farm groups and regulatory bodies are moving in that direction, but it will be difficult to establish given the enormity of the global cotton industry, with its 50 million farmers in 90 countries, most of them developing nations.
To understand organic cotton it’s best to first look at conventional cotton, which requires an array of potent chemicals — as well as huge amounts of water — for a healthy crop and to keep the bollworm pest at bay. Conventional cotton is grown on 76 million acres, or 2.4 percent of the world’s arable land, but it uses approximately 11 percent of the world’s pesticides. Around 70 percent of cotton is grown using controversial GMO seeds. The industry has also been criticized for alleged abuses regarded worker protection from hazardous chemicals as well as child labor practices. This came to light in Kids in the Cotton Fields, a groundbreaking BBC documentary aired in 2007 that accused the government of Uzbekistan of forcing children as young as nine to harvest cotton under police supervision. Uzbek authorities denied the claim, but it did lead to a moderately successful international boycott by retailers of products made from Uzbek cotton.
For organic cotton farmers, the major benefit — for the environment and the personal health of workers — is the lack of toxic chemicals. What’s more, they can save their seeds from the previous harvest, which means less upfront costs — a great advantage for small farmers who might have to borrow money in each growing season and go into debt without knowing that they can sell their harvest. In addition, the farmers can grow other crops in rotation, including food to eat or sell, as part of the organic regime, thereby encouraging biodiversity.
Yet organic cotton farming is more labor-intensive than conventional cotton because most of it is grown in developing countries, where it is typically hand-picked, owing to a lack of mechanized equipment. “Organic certification is about production, so life can be as difficult on an organic cotton farm as on a conventional cotton farm when you look at conditions for workers and how it impacts people’s lives,” says Tiera Del Forte, senior manager of apparel and home goods at TransFair USA, an organization that certifies Fair Trade products, which means they must meet criteria for fair prices, pay and labor conditions. While the main internationally agreed-on criteria for organic textiles — called the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) — does include minimum social criteria provisions such as adequate wages and a ban on child labor and inhumane treatment, Del Forte believes it is not the main focus of the certification process. And of course, not all organic cotton used in products is GOTS-certified.
The lack of transparency about the source of organic cotton poses challenges to retailers. When Jeff Denby was sourcing organic cotton for his company, PACT Underwear, one potential supplier in China tried to assure him by saying that the local government had “certified” the cotton, which was of course hardly a reliable authority. “There are many cases where the origins of the organic cotton are questionable, and tracing it back all the way to the source is difficult unless you have a tightly controlled process,” Denby, PACT’s co-founder and chief creative officer, says.
After looking at a number of suppliers in India and Turkey — the world’s two largest organic cotton producers — Denby eventually located a Turkish factory that is one of a growing number of suppliers that provide a unified supply chain that meets international organic and labor standards. The company, Egedeniz Tekstil, has partnered with local organic cotton growers to ensure traceability, and has created a closed loop that starts with non-GMO cultivation of the crop and follows the fiber as it becomes a finished garment — from ginning to spinning, knitting or weaving, dying, and manufacturing. It also offers loans to farmers to help insure they can afford to grow organic crops.
One major concern facing growers is contamination due to cross-pollination from GMO cotton when organic and conventional cotton are grown too close together. This can happen when farmers are in conversion from conventional to organic and are still harvesting conventional as an important cash crop. When the H&M story broke, the Organic Exchange acknowledged in a press release that “there is no doubt that the widespread use of GMO poses a threat to the integrity of the organic cotton industry, but that issue is being taken seriously by all stakeholders.” It added that while most farmers operate honestly, “accidental” contamination could occur during processing if machines aren’t fully cleaned before a run of organic cotton starts.
Consumers might certainly be confused when they see abbreviations like GOTS and read about cross-pollinated GMO contamination as they contemplate buying organic cotton sheets. That’s because, while standards for organic cotton certification are being harmonized, a number of overlapping standards and certifications remain.
Since 2008, GOTS has been recognized as the gold standard for organic textile processing after it united a handful of competing standards from different countries. GOTS defines criteria but doesn’t actually certify products; that’s done by almost a dozen organizations licensed by GOTS, such as Control Union and ECOCERT. Then there’s the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which sets standards for agricultural products such as cotton fiber imported into the U.S., although its organic logo is only allowed for food not textile products. Meanwhile, respected associations like the Organic Exchange, which fully supports GOTS, also endorses standards for garments made with organic fibers but not the product itself. This allows a company to claim that organic cotton fiber was used in, say, a pair of jeans but not that the jeans as a finished product are cerified organic.
On another front, a number of organizations — including the Better Cotton Initiative and the Sustainable Cotton Project — have recently launched programs to encourage producers worldwide to slowly transition to organic. They educate farmers about the benefits of organic cultivation and provide incentives to enable them to go organic in small steps. This sort of halfway house between conventional and organic reduces the growers’ exposure to toxic chemicals and allows cotton to be labeled “better” or “transitional” — but not officially organic.
And then there’s Fair Trade certification, which has now been extended to cotton products (it already covers commodities like bananas, coffee and cocoa). The idea is to provide protections to cotton farmers and cut-and-sew workers worldwide. This doesn’t mean a product is organic, although TransFair does encourage small growers to transition to organic methods by gradually reducing their use of agrochemicals. “We are using Fair Trade to leverage them to organic,” says TransFair’s Del Forte. “Fair Trade is about community empowerment,” she explains. “So we look at community development and sustainability as going hand in hand.”
As all these efforts suggest, the organic cotton industry is moving toward greater accountability of production and processing and control of the supply chain that brings products to consumers. But despite great strides, consumers and retailers are still navigating a thicket of claims and conflicting certifications as the industry expands and more organic products reach the market. The Organic Exchange’s Pepper says it’s all part of the growing pains of a burgeoning industry. “We’re not perfect,” she allows. “But we’ve already made positive changes and have had a positive impact on the environment and the economy. The future is bright.”