How Organic Cotton Caught The Measles

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

There are times when I have to question some people's sensibilities. We've all heard about the recent measles outbreak in the United States. The debate over vaccinations and the vulnerabilities of the general public due to a relatively small portion of the population refusing to inoculate their children out of fear strikes an odd tone about our society, if not human nature. For some, gossipy, second-hand pseudo-facts about vaccinations -- based in the false, discredited, and retracted finding of some old medical study -- live on as established truth. Blame it on the Internet, or blame it on TV, for some people the threat of vaccinations is real. It reminds me of the resistance of some people to acknowledge global warming or the proclaimed wickedness of genetically modified crops.

Fear, however, is irrational. In many cases, skepticism may be prudent, but ignoring facts can be dangerous. In its worst form, fear may be equated to anti-science, and a closed mindedness, that perpetuates myths with results far worse than fears originally suggest. For a long time, I've heard explanations from some advocates that organic cotton is the only way to be sure the cotton consumed in apparel is grown cleanly and sustainably. That's untrue. The majority of conventional cotton grown today follows sustainable growing practices. There is vehemence on the part of some organic cotton supporters in their beliefs, a doubtlessness of their convictions. I don't fault them for their beliefs, but I do question their willingness to look at the data.

Let me clearly state that I am all in favor of sustainable production. We have to do more as an industry to protect our natural resources. For me, though, organic production does not hold the only answer. Even in a good year, organic cotton makes up less than two percent of the global production. Organic cotton yields are low. It takes a lot of effort to grow organic cotton, let alone conventional cotton. For a farmer's effort, forms of cotton other than organic can often provide a far better return in terms of volumes and quality. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, economic returns for organic farmers can be particularly small and the volumes produced could never meet the broader needs of the global textile supply chain. This, in turn, begs the question: if organic cotton can never meet the demand of the global textile industry can organic cotton ever be truly sustainable? Furthermore, does organic cotton have the means by which to balance both environmental and economic sustainability?




Beyond organic, most conventional cotton is derived from selective breeding. Yields are much higher, so is consistency, and overall quality. Moreover, because of higher yields, conventional cotton consumes less water per pound of cotton produced than ever. These are the facts. Yet, the organic community labels such production as somehow dirty or dishonest. Non-organic cotton is lumped into a catchall label of "GMO," a slur word for some organic believers. Many retailers simply see the use of organic cotton as a way of meeting the needs of their customers. I can't fault them for that. But there are many retailers using organic cotton today out of fear. For that, I can fault them. In fact, just this week, New York Magazine's "The Cut" blog questioned whether the market has enough organic already and that enough is enough:

One thing that drives me crazy is when I get an email that starts with, We are a start-up and here is our organic cotton T-shirt. The fact that its organic doesntt make it OK. Really, the world doesntt need another organic cotton T-shirt. We have enough to take us through the next 20 years, says Timo Rissanen, program director of AAS Fashion at Parsons.  /1/

This is an interesting observation as the downstream market will only be able to absorb so much organic cotton anyway -- regardless of the amount of organic that is produced or not. Besides, consumers already own lots of apparel containing organic cotton. Indeed, while over the last ten to twelve years interest in organic cotton approached its zenith, overall market share for cotton fall steadily to petroleum-based synthetics. Where's the outrage over that? The industry bickers over cotton varieties while Rome burns and the synthetic fiber producers enjoy greater market access amid all of smoke. Consumers may have had their fill of apparel made with organic cotton, but their appetite for synthetics seems to be only gearing up. The greater argument for the cotton industry is really the threat posed by synthetics, not whether one type of cotton is better than another.

But the industry persists in this endless chatter. There always seems to be this endless debate in the industry over organic versus GMO, with never reaching any conclusion. The market has spoken, though, and GMO is the dominant form of cotton reaching over 90% of the market in major cotton-growing countries like the United States, China, India, and Pakistan. There's so much science to back up the efficacy of GMO cotton. There are also a lot of surveys suggesting organic is somehow better.

I've read reports purported to scientifically prove that organic cotton was better for the environment than conventional cotton. But I am wary of the validity of such reports as I question their objectivity; so often, only proponents of organic cotton sponsor such reports. Where's the objectivity in that? Which brings me back to the measles. The current problems are a result of a bad study that soon frightened many parents to reject vaccinations when proven science shows overwhelming benefits. I believe there's a similar behavior when it comes to cotton -- bad information gets out in the trade, good-willing people believe it, but then it is nearly impossible to change people's minds as they are so sure of the facts. For the industry, unfortunately, conviction of some has sidetracked the efforts of others, providing the opening by which synthetics can benefit. It's really a shame.

Many of todays textile and apparel sourcing people have never stepped foot on a farm to see how cotton is grown, to see the challenges facing farmers. In parts of the industry, people seem to think that big seed or chemical companies somehow abuse subsistence farmers or that large farms in the developed world are somehow untrustworthy. Why is that? Is it because the weather, insects, or manipulative middlemen any less challenge to a farmer in Texas than a farmer in the developing world? Or is the question more of belief than fact, myth than certainty?

Some consumers feel that cotton is just cotton; many don't even knows the difference between cotton and polyester, let alone understand the difference between organic and GMO other than the fears GMO instills in some consumers -- and in some sourcing executives. Have you ever visited a GMO farm? Or the labs behind GMO seeds? I have and I strongly suggest you do so too. I urge sourcing executives from around the industry to take the time to discern fact from fiction, truth from myth.

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Note: This article was originally published in SourcingJournalOnline.com 


/1/ NYMag.com, "Your Organic Cotton T-Shirt Won't Save The Planet,"  April 3, 2015, by Kristen Tice Studeman.

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