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Organic Cotton and the Power of Partnership and Persistence
Joel Makower, 7 May 06

Those of us who have followed the ups and downs of organic cotton over the past decade or so have seen the challenges and travails of trying to buck Big Ag. Back in the 1990s, Cotton, Inc. -- the powerful industry alliance that brought us those soft-focus commercials touting "the fabric of our lives" -- fought aggressively to keep organic cotton out of the picture. And demand was weak, as companies like Levi Strauss tried, and failed, to market organic cotton clothing.

The result: some of the earliest organic cotton farmers -- from Texas to Turkey -- suffered significant losses as they found few takers for their crops.

No more. Organic cotton markets are finally taking off, the product of persistence, partnerships, and a growing consumer demand for healthful, nonpolluting products.

According to a new study by the nonprofit Organic Exchange, the organic cotton market increased exponentially in North America, Europe, and Japan between 2001 and 2005. During those four years, the number of brands and retailers with significant organic cotton programs grew from 5 companies to more than 30. The number of small brands and retailers mushroomed from a few hundred to more than 1,200 companies by the end of last year. The estimated global retail sales of organic cotton products more than doubled, from $245 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005, an annual average growth rate of 35%. By 2008, the market is expected to grow to more than $2.6 billion -- a tenfold increase in just 7 years.

Why the interest? Cotton, for all those heartwarming commercials, turns out to be a very difficult, and very polluting, crop to grow, requiring huge applications of chemicals. According to the activist group PANNA:

Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture. Each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides -- more than 10% of the world's pesticides and nearly 25% of the world's insecticides. Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos, and endosulfan.
There's little question that the organic cotton market has hit the big time. Once the domain of small, niche businesses, the market space is suddenly filled with household names. For starters, there's Nike, until recently the world's largest buyer of organic cotton. And there's pioneering Patagonia, of course, which converted its entire sportswear line to organic cotton fully ten years ago. They've been joined by the likes of such well-known brands as Bed, Bath, and Beyond; Eileen Fisher; IKEA; Marks & Spencer; Nordstrom; REI; Timberland; Whole Foods; even Woolworth's South Africa.

And then there's Walmart. The mega-retailer, as part of its recent spate of environmental announcements and aspirations, says it has big plans for organic cotton. CEO Lee Scott has promised new clothing lines made from organic cotton starting next year. His company's ambitions aren't made from whole cloth -- they are derived from Walmart's early successes, as described on its Web site:

We introduced an organic cotton yoga outfit to 290 Sam's Clubs this year, and our customers bought virtually all of them in just 10 weeks-that's 190,000 units. So, we expanded our organic practice to include select bath, bed, and baby products. From just these few orders in a limited number of stores, the Organic Exchange has informed us we will have saved more than 500,000 pounds of pesticides and herbicides from being used, and have become the largest single purchaser of 100% organic cotton products in the world.

The fast-paced growth of alternative markets like this don't happen -- well, organically. As organic cotton has demonstrated, it requires persistence and laser focus. It also requires the bringing together of industry players not often seen in the same room. In this regard, much of the credit goes to the Organic Exchange itself. The group was convened in large part by Nike, in partnership with Rebecca Calahan Klein, the group's founder, to bring together growers, ginners, millers, buyers, and other parts of the cotton value chain. Up to then, it was the classic chicken-and-egg situation: Would-be buyers complained that prices were too high, while manufacturers complained that prices wouldn't come down until purchases increased. In the end, all parties stepped up, each in their own way, albeit coordinated, to help spur the market's growth.

The next chapter of the organic cotton story remains unwritten. Much like the changing face of organic foods -- in which large industrial agri-businesses are supplanting smaller and pioneering family farms -- questions remain about how this industry will unfold. According to Organic Exchange:

Growing demand is now poised to lead a large scale expansion of organic cotton farming around the world. But the question is "what kind of a market will emerge?" Will it be another large scale commodity market, where farmers are anonymous and are subject to tremendous economic pressure? Or will we create a different kind of market, where the promise of organic farming can be realized?

Organic Exchange, for one, is rooting for the latter. In either case, organic cotton represents a fine example of what it takes to transform the fabric of an industry into a more sustainable one -- even in the face of big, powerful, polluting interests.

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I wonder if a similar pattern is emerging with clothing made from hemp. That would be even better than organic cotton for many applications. Organic cotton, though, doesn't have to fight against the drug stigma.

Posted by: Erik on 7 May 06

I was wondering tonight actually if we will ever be able to overcome the drug stigma as Erik rightly puts it associated with hemp, from what I've read atleast it seems like quite a good material, stronger and more resiliant than cotton...although I would assume not as versatile, but still it seemed easier to grow and i'm up for anything that boosts good quality natural products

Posted by: Chris on 7 May 06

I have tons of t-shirts but my favorite one is a hemp t-shirt. It grips your skin in a different way. Maybe that isn't true of all hemp t-shirts but it certainly made me think that maybe hemp would make a great substitute.

Posted by: Charles on 8 May 06

The hemp fiber looks like a tube, with several long thin and hollow cavities in the center and the cell of hemp fiber is net-structured and hollow cavities are interlined. The special structure of hemp fiber tells the reason why hemp textile products have so many protective functions as the following: First, hemp products can provide a protective screen from ultraviolet, microwave, sound wave and lightwave. It can reduce the ultraviolet ray at a rate of more than 99.9% and for the microwave radiation of mobile phone, it will reduce the radiation more than 86%. In addition, by weaning hemp clothing, it will also keep our skin from the harmful sunlight and reduce the chance of getting skin cancer.
Hemp fabric has automatic regulative functions of heat
preservation and radiation. The interlined hollow cavities of the hemp fiber results in excellent capillaries which producing good results of absorbing moisture and discharging sweat, especially in hot climate, you can feel 5?C degree lower in hemp than in cotton.
The hemp fabric also kills harmful germs sufficiently. According to the result of the inspection by China Shandong Sanitation and Antiepidemic Station, the hemp cloth could kill 99.4% of trichophyton and gympsum, 92.6% candidaalbiecan, 99.8% of aspergillus etc.

Posted by: andreas buechel on 8 May 06

Just rename hemp. Chilean Sea Bass was Toothfish until it was discovered that no one wants to eat a Toothfish. Now Chilean Sea Bass is so popular it will probably be driven to extinction. Rebranding hemp could be all it takes to get the average Westerner to buy it.

Posted by: Matt VN on 8 May 06

It's great that organic cotton is really taking off - I just hope Wal-Mart don't commandeer the entire world's output and force us to buy from them.

Greenfibres has been a pioneer in this field for 10 years and we have noticed recently a significant increase in demand for our organic clothing and bedding, as well as a growth in the market for hemp - especially organic hemp. In the UK, at least, people don't seem to be confused over drug issues - most people understand that the fibre plant is different from the one they smoke!

Posted by: Phil Chandler on 10 May 06

It is reported that the 'dream' combination is a blend of hemp and organic cotton, which maintains ths strength and other benefits of hemp, but gives some of the wearer friendly benefits of cotton too.

Posted by: Simon Cross on 11 May 06

While hemp is has a lot of performance benefits -- personally I love its comfort and breathability -- it is not a practical mainstream fiber that could ever compete with cotton or polyester. The reason, there simply is very little hemp available globally. For example, if WalMart were to introduce just four styles of hemp in its stores worldwide, it would consume the total current supply of hemp grown on Earth. Furthermore, converting the natural hemp fiber into a form that can be spun into yarn is complex. It is very difficult to achieve uniform quality in large scale production. This is why most hemp products available on the market are rather coarse, even though it is possible to make hemp fabric that has a luxurious silky, cotton-like handfeel if only the highest quality hemp fibers are selected. Unfortunately, no technology has been developed yet to be able to do this in a cost effective, large-scale fashion.

To sum things up, buy hemp clothing if you can find it. But don't expect Gap and Wal-Mart to be introducing it anytime soon.

Posted by: Jeff on 21 May 06



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