Swedish fashion giant H&M has been making headlines for their strides toward sustainability, and were named the biggest user of organic cotton worldwide in both 2010 and 2011.1
With 2,900 stores in 49 markets, H&M is certainly poised to make real changes in the garment industry, and has pledged to only use more sustainably produced cotton by 2020. And unlike many industries that are only now jumping on the organic bandwagon, H&M has been using certified organic cotton since 2004.
These are noble strategies, but H&M’s move toward sustainability hasn’t come without setbacks, including a major scandal in 2010 that found some of H&M’s ‘organic’ cotton may have been contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Is H&M Organic Cotton Really Organic?
In 2010, independent laboratory testing found that 30 percent of the organic cotton tested from H&M, along with European companies C&A and Tchibo, contained genetically modified (GM) material.2
All of the questionable cotton came from India, one of the world’s largest producers of organic cotton, which suggests the fraudulent labeling is probably occurring at far more retailors than the three listed.
The companies mentioned were not aware that the organic cotton they were selling was tainted, but H&M did acknowledge the finding.
They also now state that all of their organic cotton is independently certified by accredited certification bodies and all products containing organic cotton have a transaction certificate issued by a third-party certifier to verify the content of the organic fiber.3
H&M is also actively involved in the Better Cotton Initiative, which is striving to make global cotton production better for the environment and the economies in cotton-producing areas.
Though not necessarily organic, member farmers of the Better Cotton Initiative in Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan are using more sustainable ways of growing cotton, and reaped their first harvests during the 2010-11 season. Their production principles include cotton produced by farmers who:4
1. Minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices
2. Use water efficiently and care for the availability of water
3. Care for the health of the soil
4. Conserve natural habitats
5. Care for and preserve the quality of the fiber
6. Promote decent work
Cotton Is the 'World’s Dirtiest Crop'
You’re probably well aware why it’s important to buy organic as much as possible when it comes to your food, but what about for an item of clothing, which is merely going to rest against your skin?
The reasons are still largely the same, and while they’re important for you, as an individual, they’re also important on a very broad scale. One of the primary reasons why organic cotton is better is because of what it doesn’t contain, namely a heavy load of some of the most hazardous insecticides on the market.
According to the Organic Trade Association:5
“Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop.
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.
Aldicarb, cotton's second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater.”
As you might suspect, this is hazardous on multiple levels – for the farmers working with these chemicals, the people living nearby, the consumers buying the cotton and virtually everyone else who will eventually be impacted by this widespread environmental pollution, much of which inevitably travels up the food chain where it bioaccumulates within your body.