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Organic Cotton: Sustainable & Fashionable

Appearances can be deceptive. Cotton, for most, seems like an entirely innocuous fabric. Against the sometimes scratchy, plasticky man-made fabrics, soft, breathing cotton seems positively natural. It is certainly
popular: hard-wearing, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, easily dyed and woven. No wonder we've been cultivating it for 7,000 years, or that last year we got through 112 million 480lb bales of the stuff, much of it grown in the US and China, the world's biggest producer. And yet it is a killer, a sartorial narcotic we need to give up. Cotton, as Dov Charney, entrepreneur behind the American Apparel T-shirt company, put it, is "the nicotine of clothing".

Or at least inorganic cotton is, the kind that constitutes the bulk of what we wear, dry ourselves with, sleep on. This is why American Apparel is one of the many fashion companies, alongside names such as Timberland and Patagonia, and many smaller eco-specialist fashion houses, increasing their use of organic cotton. Some have briefly been there before. But now organic cotton is beginning to appear on the high street too: this season both Topshop and Oasis launched capsule collections in organic cotton.

"Fashion is a very copycat industry," says Scott Hahn, who launched Loomstate, an American organic cotton denim line, to the likes of Harrods and Selfridges last year. "There are a few pioneers and other brands follow. For some it's because they think organic cotton is trendy now that it's escaped its tree-hugger image. But more I think are now doing so for the right reasons."

Ecologically, those reasons are straightforward: although the global inorganic cotton crop accounts for only 2.5 per cent of land, it accounts for 10 per cent of pesticides used and 22 per cent of insecticides. Not only does the toxic residue from these pollute soil and water sources and kill wildlife, but the World Health Organization estimates that 20,000 cotton workers die every year from contamination. Those who don't are typically driven towards poverty, takingloans to pay for the chemicalsdeemed necessary to create a more profitable product (all while US and EU cotton growers are heavily subsidised for their large-scale production).

Not that growing organic cotton is easy: chemicals make for a more standardised quality and increase yields by up to 20 per cent. Dependence on natural processes to protect an organic crop is higher-risk and makes supply
unpredictable: that is why 100 per cent organic cotton items are unlikely to be used for high fashion products with a fast turnaround of styles yet. Rotation is necessary, so up to a third of a farmer's cash crop is out of production at any time. Organic cotton has to be cleaned before it is processed - an added expense, offset in part by the cost-saving on chemicals. Even converting fields to organic cotton growing is costly, taking three years (during which the cotton can be labelled "green" or "unbleached" but not organic). The resulting product is around 20 per cent more expensive, a cost that invariably has to be passed on to the consumer. And to what direct benefit to them?

Mary Rayner, researcher withthe Ethical Consumer Research Group, believes organic food's success should help organic cotton's cause. "But it will be necessary for the public to undergo some kind of education process. There may be health benefits but most farmers growing organic cotton and people already buying it are doing so because they want to actively support organic agriculture and the environment." Indeed, unlike organic food, which is now associated with healthy eating, organic cotton offers the wearer little obvious benefit. It tends to be of high quality, "although the market wouldn't have grown if the design of the clothes it's made into hadn't also improved," says Thomas Petit, director of the clothing company Gossypium.

"Not many people will buy it just because it's organic..." And some evidence suggests residue from the chemical processing of cotton cloth can pass through the skin - an issue of especial concern to pregnant women and one reason why so much organic cotton is made into underwear and baby clothes.

But, though many will look for a self-serving motivation to wear organic cotton - and these may note how inorganic cotton also enters their diet through cottonseed and cottonseed oil, present in many processed foods and animal feeds - the chief reason to pay a premium for it remains less that it is better for themselves as better for the planet.

The message is getting through. Global sales of organic cotton tripled from 2002 to 2004 (the latest figures), while the UK market grew by 50 per cent year-on-year in 2004, according to the Pesticide Action Network. But long-term take-up will, suggests PAN's cotton project officer Damien Sanfilippo, depend on major retailers buying and promoting their organic cotton products. Some have been reluctant to do this, given the inference that most of their range is inorganic and thus "bad".

Also crucial will be the backing of fashion companies to buy or, better still, sign forward contracts for a sufficient proportion of the organic cotton crop to ensure market stability and sustain prices. Levi's, Gap and Nike all buy organic cotton, at the moment mostly for use in cotton blends - and while that represents less than 3 per cent of their total cotton usage, that can add up to more than all the smaller companies' organic cotton usage combined. Building capacity will also allow the development of the finer and long staple fibres required for organic cotton to migrate from wardrobe basics to high fashion.

"Not many fashion companies will do that, though, unless consumers demand it," says Safia Minney, founder of the People Tree organic cotton clothing brand. "The pressure has to be kept up. And not many people will demand it unless they understand that cotton production is a global issue, that our clothes have an environmental impact."

Ironically, there are concerns about whether Fairtrade cotton - which guarantees farm workers' wages and conditions, but is not necessarily organic - will help or hinder organic cotton. "If it has to be one or the other, that cotton should be organic is far more important," suggests Sanfilippo.

"But it's not just a trend," believes Nadia Jones, Oasis's design director. "The generation buying high-street fashion now has genuine environmental concerns. A few years ago organic food was a novelty. Now it's everywhere. And we think the same will happen with cotton. The growth in demand for organic cotton will take time. But it's important we and other fashion retailers back it."

Labels to wear with pride

Founded in 2000, American Apparel's vertically-integrated manufacturing means its well-cut casualwear is made in LA by co-operatives with "worker-positive" conditions of fair pay, employment rights, health benefits, safety protections, buses to immigrant rights rallies, massages and language lessons. It recycles fabrics scraps and over the next four years will convert more than 80 per cent of its cotton consumption to sustainable cotton.

Bamford & Sons is the unlikely fashion spin-off of the family behind JCB diggers. The brainchild of Lady Carole Bamford, the line mixes vintage and new items - made in closely-monitored factories in the UK, India and China. This season its two London stores (with more to follow internationally) introduced a Japanese organic cotton menswear range. It has garments and items made from ecological leather, tanned with chemical-free soft vegetable dyes.

Edun is the ethical clothing launched by Bono, his wife Ali Hewson and designer Rogan Gregory, and snapped up by the likes of Harrods and Selfridges. Ituses organic or African cotton where possible. But its "trade not aid" raison d'être is to provide sustainable work by using vetted, locally-run factories in South America, India and Africa (for example, if Africa could regain an additional 1 per cent share of global trade it would earn $70bn more in exports p/a).

Specialising in casual clothing made from organic and Fairtrade cotton, Gossypium was foundedin 1997 on the basis that the production of man-made fibres from oil is not sustainable, hence its use of only natural biodegradable fabrics (with a minimum of elastic yarns and trims). Cotton is sourced in India from farms certified by Skal (a leading organic inspection
agency) using natural methods. Gossypium yoga clothing has recently been bought by Marks & Spencer.

Loomstate is a new US denim label that uses 19th-century, pre-industrialised farming and manufacturing methods to weave raw organic cotton yarn. A pair of inorganic jeans, in contrast, typically uses three-quarters of a pound of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to make. The company's five-pocket western jeans come in three fits for men and five for women and launch in the UK later this year. Even the labelling aims to be "organic": it comes embedded with wildflower seeds.

One of the pioneering ethical fashion brands, People Tree was founded by environmental activist Safia Minney as a joint UK/Japanese business to produce clothing made to high ethical and environmental standards. Half of its collection is made from organic and Fairtrade-certified cotton. Selling through Topshop this season, it works with 70 Fair Trade groups in 20 developing countries, and also funds social welfare projects in many of its producer nations.

Johan and Josefin Lassbo founded Reflective Circle on a manifesto that any designer is "a political and social participant, responsible for all levels affected by design, including ethical and aesthetic areas". Josefin's collections, including leggings, sweat-tops, print dresses and T-shirt dresses, all use ecological, naturally-dyed and Fairtrade fabrics made in certified factories. They have just launched DiFFUSiON, a new T-shirt line.

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited