When Organic Is Not Sustainable

Sunday, January 31, 2010

There’s been reporting in the media recently that some retailers in Europe have allegedly mislabeled clothing stating they contain organic cotton when in actuality the garments contained conventional or genetically modified cotton. Interestingly, some reports have termed this a “fraud” and that retailers were complicit in their mislabeling of the fiber content of some of their garments.

I do not know who is guilty of what (if anything), but what I do know is that there's not enough certifiably organic cotton grown globally to equate to the number of garments sold at retail with the tag “made with 100% organic cotton”.

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), the well respected cotton organization based out of Washington, DC, only about 180,000 metric tons of organic cotton are produced globally. This compares to global cotton production of 23.1 million metric tons. Hence, based on these statistics, organic cotton makes up last than 0.8 percent of global cotton production -- a ridiculously small amount of cotton and certainly not enough to meet the global demand.

And herein lies the rub: there’s simply not enough true organic cotton. The proponents of organic say that it will just take time to build up enough crop to meet demand, but in reality there are so many factors at work it is a certainty there will never be enough real organic cotton production to meet demand. Let’s be clear, in defense of the retailers, all they are doing by labeling something organic is simply meeting the demand of desires of the ultimate customer of the textile supply chain: The Consumer.

I think what’s more critical, however, is determining whether one type of cotton production is truly sustainable over the long term or not. I am skeptical that organic cotton production will ever be sustainable -- for those of you who want to take issue with this last statement, then please feel free to contact me at robert.antoshak@fcstone.com. I’m more than willing to discuss the limitations -- and, yes, merits -- of organic cotton.

Yet, I feel sustainability will be more important for both cotton growers, textile mills, apparel companies and retailers than whether something is organic or not. In some ways, I think the organic movement has its heart in the right place, but it’s ignored the realities of the problems inherent with growing truly certifiable organic cotton. But with sustainability, I think we have an approach to farm practices that can really excite consumers.

I’d like to provide you with an example. A dear friend of mine, Andrew Olah, perhaps the leading innovator in the global denim business, along with his talented colleague, Paul Cavazos, have produced a video about Texas cotton that really gets to the heart of sustainable cotton production. To feel the passion of the growers interviewed for the video is to truly understand why sustainable cotton production is real, understandable, and has taken root with producers of one of the most widely produced cotton varieties in the United States today, Fibermax cotton.

Take a look at the video HERE.

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