Organic Cotton Clothes--Still a Tiny Market Segment

Organic Cotton Clothes--Still a Tiny Market Segment

The Vancouver Sun
July 16, 2001 Monday FINAL EDITION

EDITORIAL, Pg. A11 Mark Winston

First food, then fibres: Now the clothing industry has cottoned on to
organic farming and become friendlier to the environment, purists can
breathe easier
BYLINE: Mark Winston
SOURCE: Special to the Sun

Confession time: I am a cottonaholic, addicted to old-fashioned,
natural-fibre cotton clothing. Knit shirts woven from the softest of
Peruvian pimas, denim jeans made from tough long-fibred American varieties,
crisp pinpoint dress shirts crafted from ancient Egyptian cottons,
business-casual khaki trousers blended from cotton grown on Asian and
African farms, my fetish for cotton has no global or varietal limits.

Why confess? I'm also an avowed nature lover, and cotton production is
anything but natural. Cotton might be the least environmentally friendly
crop on the planet, drenched in pesticides, soaking up scant water
resources, and treated with heavy inputs of synthetic fertilizers.
Fourteen pounds of pesticides are sprayed per acre annually for conventional
cotton production -- 25 per cent of all insecticides used world-wide. Even
cotton farmers are dismayed, but their solution to reduce pesticide use has
been of little solace to environmental purists.

Growers have embraced transgenic cotton to the point where almost 50 per
cent of U.S. cotton is now genetically modified.

Thus, I was thrilled to stumble upon a new product the other day to help
resolve my cotton guilt. Clothing woven from organic cotton is now being
sold at Vancouver's consumption mecca for the physically active, Mountain
Equipment Co-op (MEC).

Organic cotton clothing is still a minuscule part of MEC's and the world's
market. Although the acreage of organic cotton has increased in recent
years, it still represents only one-tenth of one percent of cotton grown
around the planet.

To find out why, I had lunch with MEC's organic cotton buyer Anne Gillespie
and La Rhea Pepper, a farmer from south of Lubbock, Texas, who was in town
for a meeting of the Organic Trade Association, a U.S. and Canadian lobby
group for the organic industry.

Pepper is a fervent believer in the righteousness of all things organic,
convinced that on Judgment Day her role as an organic cotton grower will tip
the scales in her favour. Nevertheless, she is well-grounded in practical
farming and aware of the problems organic cotton producers must overcome.
For one thing, organic growers don't use chemical weed killers, and
tractor-tilling is not feasible in cotton because it would knock down the
plants. Weeding is done by hand, and on Pepper's 1,400-acre cotton farm that
means a lot of back-breaking hoeing.

Cotton also is attacked mercilessly by insect pests such as the boll weevil
and the bollworm. On her farm, about one-third of the acreage is devoted to
corn that is planted primarily to attract pests away from cotton, a
technique that is effective but leaves the corn unmarketable and that
portion of her acreage unprofitable. Also, while natural predators and
parasites are abundant on pesticide-free organic farms, yields still can
drop because of occasional pest flare-ups.

In spite of these challenges for organic producers, there is a surplus of
organic cotton fibre on the market. The industry is limited not by
production problems but by marketing issues. While consumer demand for
organic food has become intense, customers have not yet exhibited the same
passion for organic fibres.

Gillespie described the main marketplace impediment to the success of
organic fabric: "Organic cotton is not on the consumer's radar screen.
People ingest food and see it growing in their gardens, but cotton growing
is far away from people's lives. Many have no idea that cotton even comes
from a plant."

Low demand has made it difficult to book time at cotton mills, and Gillespie
has had to shuffle between mills in Thailand, India and Portugal to squeeze
in runs of organic fibre. For fabric to be certified organic, the mill
equipment must be cleaned of residues from conventional cotton before it can
be used to weave organic fabric. Most mills are reluctant to shut production
down to clean their machinery for relatively small runs of organic cotton.
Gillespie's good news is that Mountain Equipment Co-op customers are
responding favourably to the new products. However, the future of organic
cotton is rosy, not because of environmentally conscious businesses like
MEC, but from a larger and more unlikely source.

The multinational athletic wear company Nike launched a line of partly
organic cotton clothing in 1998 that is becoming an increasing component of
its marketing plans. Nike's reputation was sullied in the 1990s due to
allegations of child labour in its Third World factories, and the company
hopes organic cotton will help to re-establish its politically correct

Nike started by blending three per cent of organic cotton into its 40
million T-shirts, which adds only two cents to the price of each shirt. This
alone will use up about 10 per cent of the world's organic cotton supply by
2003, but positive consumer response has stimulated Nike to explore fully
organic cotton clothing. If implemented, the organic cotton industry would
need to double its production just to meet Nike's requirements.

Nike and MEC are soothing my cotton angst, but my problems aren't over.
I'm also deeply attached to wool sweaters, but sheep farmers can be as
guilty as cotton growers at leaving a heavy environmental footprint.
There's more good news on the horizon, though. MEC is sourcing organic wool,
and sweaters woven from environmentally correct yarn may be next up on their

Mark Winston is a professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.