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The organic wardrobe

The stereotype of the responsible buyer: a fuel efficient car, organic food and clothes made with, clearly, organic material. Organic cotton has left the hippie ghetto and entered the closet.

“There are trees which grow wild there, the fruit whereof is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep. The natives make their clothes of this tree-wool.” (Herodotus, Book III. 106)

On a macro level, the market is beginning to show trends related to a type of consumption that accounts for ethical values. Educated buyers from high income countries don’t want to sacrifice the good things in life: the freedom of a car, quality food or stylish clothes-, but they are realizing their purchases have power so car, food and clothing buys are beginning to define them as much, or more, than their vote.

Hybrids haven’t caught on in Europe… But they’re huge in the US

Toyota has been in rare form in the past year: the Japanese brand earned, in 2006 (fiscal year 2007), five times more than the sum total of its eight large American and European competitors: a total of nearly 10 billion dollars. The firm owes its success to the strength of models like the hybrid Prius that, despite not catching on in Europe, has hadsupersales in the U.S., with months-long waiting lists at some California dealerships. And, more importantly, this model has provided Toyota with an even stronger brand image, adding the value of “sustainability” to its historical strengths (reliability, technology).

Lacking less contaminating and equally affordable alternatives, the Prius has become a symbol of environmentalism and ethical commitment in the middle-class suburbs of some U.S. States, mainly those along the West Coast.

And, clearly, along the same lines, this same responsible consumer that has traded in an SUV for the hybrid would buy organic food, that is, locally produced organic food.

So where does the average ethical consumer go next? According to the non-profit The Organic Exchange, the concerned buyer has a new objective: an organic closet.

The numbers say that organic cotton is no longer a souvenir material for bibs and diapers and, given the demand from large textile distributors, has moved into the category of highly-desirable.

The renaissance of reading labels

As confirmed by The Guardian and The Economist in December of 2006, the responsible buyer has begun to demand more information about the materials and the manufacture of what they’re wearing, without needing to be a hippie nor an overnight environmentalist. Reading labels has became important again for many buyers.

The issue, for the first time, seems to have gone beyond cities like London, where organic cotton products have earned a following in the shops of Notting Hill; and now they have conquered in the Northwestern United States, in cities like Portland (Oregon) and Seattle (Washington), where brands that use sustainable fabrics, like Patagonia, have thousands of followers.

Organic cotton is a focus for large brands and knowledgeable consumers, those that marketers call “early adopters”. There are also other naturally produced fibers with similar traits ofbreathability and durability like hemp, as well as chlorine-free wool and artificial fibers made from recycled material, like the polyester derived from plastic bottles and other everyday objects.

This last material is one of the biggest success stories from the aforementioned technical clothing company Patagonia, headquartered inVentura, California.

Does it make sense that users demand organic cotton clothes and push for change through their purchasing decisions? Despite being an individual decision, some global data brings greater clarity to the situation: cotton is one of the most toxic crops on the planet, grown with 10% of the pesticides, and 25% of the synthetic fertilizers, used worldwide. After learning this information, cotton t-shirts don’t seem so comfortable, breathable or innocuous.

Organic materials have been used for years, although now natural materials are receiving attention from the giant clothing chains. Companies like Patagonia, that have used organic fabrics for over a decade, have been joined in the past year by Mark’s & Spencer (that is trying to recover the market lost to the Spanish brand Zara),Nordstrom, H&M and even Wal-Mart (driven to divert American public consciousness from their salary and labor disputes).

The numbers for organic cotton are still tiny, if you compare them with those of the huge -and subsidized in the U.S.- industry of cotton produced with pesticides, fertilizers and genetic modification. According to The Organic Exchange, which represents producers and buyers of organic cotton, in 2006 1.1 billion dollars of organic cotton was sold.

Despite it’s current market share, growth seems unstoppable: in 2005, this number was at just 538 million, while it’s estimated that in 2008 the same market will reach 2.6 billion in sales.

Even in countries like Spain, where organic cotton is less fashionable, the large multinationals, like Inditex- which in 2006 overtook H&M as Europe’s largest clothing retailer- are taking notice.

faircompanies contacted Inditex, headquarted in Arteixo (A Coruña, Galicia, Spain), whose core chain is the Zara brand. The response arrived mid-May 2007, just days after requesting information: “In response to your request we want to inform you that Zara began selling with this past spring/summer collection a line of shirts from the women’s collection made with 100% organic cotton.”

“This type of cotton, also known as organic cotton, was first cultivated in the 1990s. In order to receive the organic certification it must fulfill two qualifications: that no pesticides, herbicides nor chemical fertilizers are used in the cultivation of the cotton plant and that during its processing no procedures have been used that may be harmful to the environment.

It is equally necessary to demonstrate that it is innocuous, that is to say, that is isn’t harmful to health. The organic cotton shirts that Zara sells are accompanied by the message ‘100% organic, 0% chemical’ across the shirt of some models and sewn onto the neck of others, so they can be easily identified.” The message sent to faircompanies was signed by the director of communications and institutional relations of the Spanish brand.

Organic cotton

The organic cotton business is still just a small portion of the global business of this vegetable polymer:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the worldwide cotton market is $12 billion.
  • The seven largest producers of cotton worldwide are, in this order, China, U.S., India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Brazil.
  • The U.S. is the main worldwide exporter of conventional cotton, with sales at $4.9 billion, followed by the French African countries whose exports are valued at $2.1 billion.
  • The 25,000 cotton producers in the U.S. receive generous subsidies from the federal government, with $2 billion in aid per year.
  • Cotton is one of the plants in which genetic engineers have worked the most, given its commercial importance. Now in 1997, 25% of cotton-cultivated land are seeded with genetically modified varieties.

Despite the big hopes of textile firms that use organic cotton and its producers, that see this crop as an alternative to the mature market and stable prices, the numbers for organic cotton continue being far from a market of the masses: organic cotton represents just .1% of global commerce of this fabric, due to several factors, according to The Economist (“How green is your wardrobe?” – December 2, 2006):

  • The costs of the conversion from conventional, or genetically modified, cotton cultivation which use chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) to an organic cultivation requires a large initial investment.
  • The first crops of organic cotton obtained after a change in cultivation are, proportionally, tiny, above all compared with those of genetically modified varieties.
  • Even though it’s a less important reason, The Economist also points out that producers are also worried about the uncertain demand in a new market, given the surplus of 2001, when the production of this type of more expensive cotton exceeded the growth in demand. However, as The Organic Exchange points out, the sustained demand over the past few years from large distributors has taken away this risk.
  • Potential fraud is another growing risk: industry sources assure that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the organic type from the conventional, which facilitates fraudulent operations. Mark Messura, of American trade group Cotton Incorporated, believes that “the market is absolutely ripe for fraud in organic.” He also believes that organic cotton is the fashion industry’s “new black” for the 2007 season and that, like with other trends, by next year, it will cease to be fashionable and organic cultivation will return to its ostracized status.

However, the longterm politics of companies like Patagonia contradict the prediction of Messura and of those who, like him, believe that “the organic thing” is nothing more than a passing trend. At Patagonia they don’t tire of repeating that their clients seek durability and functionality, but they also share the environmental politics of the company, that creates a large part of its clothes with what they call “e-fibers” (“environmental fibers”, or fibers that respect the environment), such as recycled polyester (derived from plastic bottles) and recyclable polyester (once used, it can be reused), hemp, organic cotton, organic wool and chlorine-free wool.

In exchange for this added value in the quality of the materials and finished product, as well as because of their respect for the environment, consumers of this brand are used to gladly paying a little more for their purchases.

According to data released by The Organic Exchange in its last report, published in the spring of 2006, organic cotton is grown in 22 countries and has increased its productive capacity by 392% since the crop of 2000-01. Turkey is the main producer, with a 40% market share, followed by India, with 25%, United States (7,7%), and China (7,3%). These four countries were predicted to grow 80% of all organic cotton for this past season.

A look at natural fabrics

For the first time, several textile firms of international scope are supporting the pioneering sector of environmentally-respectful production methods. The textile firms and shoppers, according to Patagonia, can “lighten our impact on the environment, such as buying and throwing away less, reusing products whenever possible, and recycling everything we can.

This assertion, that just five years ago would have been marginalized as radical environmentalist or “treehugger“, is now being considered by the largest worldwide distributors. Occasionally, it is only words that help to improve a brand’s image. Other times, it’s about a more in-depth plan for a new business strategy for a company.

When it’s about making clothes, these companies believe, the objective is to use increasingly more natural materials that have been manufactured by means less damaging to the earth.

  • Organic cotton: the benefits of organic food are best known by the public. According to The Organic Exchange, Patagonia and other companies like American Apparel, the advantages known about organic food can be applied to fibers created without genetic modification nor chemical additives. Organic cotton reduces toxic pesticide use and synthetic fertilizers that contaminate the earth, the air, our water supply and animals, human beings included.
  • Hemp: if organic cotton had been on occasion related with the hippie movement, hemp continues to be seen as a forbidden fiber and even counterproductive, despite the recognized properties of this material, superior in several respects to cotton. Hemp is an extraordinarily vicious weed that grows unstoppably in temperate climates without the need for much care. Traditionally, it has been cultivated using natural ingredients like animal manure and rain as an irrigation method. The hallucinogenic properties of hemp, above all its seeds, have converted its cultivation into a hot potato relegated to no man’s land. The prejudices, in this case, have won. The benefits of its cultivation on a large scale would be colossal: it doesn’t require artificial irrigation nor the use of pesticides nor synthetic fertilizers.
  • Organic wool: organic wool is wool derived from sheep fed with pastures free from fertilizers or pesticides; all feeding is organic; the use of antibiotics is strictly regulated; the number of sheep per acre/hectare is limited to prevent theoverexploitation of the pastures.

The Organic Exchange recommends to clothing brands, distributors, manufacturers, farmers and organizations interested in organic agriculture:

  • Partnerships to develop exclusive supply chains, with more fluid communication than currently exists; planning and aid between manufacturers and distributors, their clients and farmers to promote existing, and future, sustainable projects.
  • Exploring new avenues of association between cultivation projects and farmers, profit sharing and ownership of the production between growers and brands, as with other methods that have been tried effectively to establish “fair” prices, that allow producers to invest in the constant improvement of their organic crop.
  • Developing a general market for organic cotton, where the mayor decisions- related to type of crop and cotton used- can be made. The intermediaries and brands can reduce the risks confronted by the farmers, who don’t want to risk surpluses that would result in a drop in prices and profits.
  • Increasing the investments of philanthropic, governmental, and financial institutions for the development and technical support of existing, and new, organic cotton production projects.

The use of these fibers in the production of clothes is still a mark of exclusivity, caused by the higher price of these natural materials, and the niche of buyers traditionally branded “activist”.

For the first time, analysts believe that its use will grow to the extent that the “niche of activists” is converted, as is happening, into a demand of millions of consumers from high income countries, willing to put, for the first time, their ethics before their wallet.

As explained by Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, to pay a higher price for a better purchase (better designed, more resistant) can translate into alongterm savings. Clearly, thinking like him, we should stop thinking of clothes as a product tied to the seasons, with sales and a childlike drive to consume and to base our relationships on activities like “to go shopping”.

Consumption continues being, in the end, cultural. Even though it seems that many are prepared to not label as hippies those who decide to shop less, more naturally and of better quality.

In 1994, at a Patagonia meeting in the company headquarters (Ventura, California), executives debated the investment risk of 20 million dollars in a totally unknown market, that of the organic cotton. At that time, the organic certification for textiles didn’t exist and no one in the world had been crazy enough to try to do business with organic cotton.

The words of Chouinard that ended the meeting: “If we continue to make clothes with conventionally grown cotton, knowing what we know now, we’re toast anyway. Let’s do it; let’s go organic.”

The board of directors voted that all conventionally grown cotton had to be eliminated from Patagonia clothing by the spring of 1996.