Is Organic Clothing- a sustainable solution?

(A Discussion with Organic Fabrics & Clothing makers)

The ‘organic wear’ segment is probably one of the success stories in promotion of sustainability movement.  Organic cotton has been most popularly associated with it. Organic Cotton production is also a consumer driven initiative –say some researchers.

A survey by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange) released four months ago shows neither the crisis nor faltering economies were able to put a curb on the fast-growing organic textiles industry which grew 20 percent to an estimated $5.16 billion in 2010, and an estimated $6.2 billion market in 2011.

Usage of organic cotton alone by several brands and retailers has also been found to be increased two-fold and is likely to follow the pattern in 2012 as well. Others with large programs are staying the course. Textile Exchange projects the global organic cotton market will touch $7.4 billion market in 2012.

With the fact the companies are increasingly becoming certified to traceability standards such as the Organic Exchange (OE) Blended or OE 100 standard tracing the organic fiber from the field to finished product. “Many manufacturers also became certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) which addresses textile’s processing stages and includes strong labor provisions,” notices Ms. Shalini Sheth Amin, the CEO of organic fabrics producer – Moral Fibre.

In a colloquy with Fibre2fashion team, invited for the discussion- Mr. Shishir Goenka, Founder of Fushion Clothing; Mr Jainam Kumarpal- Director Bhu:sattva; and Ms. Shalini Sheth Amin reply to other interrogations related to Organic cotton; fabrics and clothing vis-à-vis its sustainable features;

Mr. Shishir, how will you relate use of Organic clothing to Sustainability?

Mr. Shishir, Founder of Fushion Clothing,Organic Fabrics, Clothing makersConventionally grown cotton occupies only 3% of the farmland but uses 25% of the world’s chemical pesticides, harmful to both nature and human body. Pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals used to grow and process conventional cotton fabrics may go directly to the users blood stream, which consequently affect's the body's organs and tissues.

Farms using conventional farming methods are using more and more pesticides and fertilizers just to maintain their production levels. This ever increasing use of chemicals is destroying the environment. The result is poor quality soils, polluted waterways, loss of natural wildlife, as well as serious health problems for farm workers.

Supporting farms and companies who produce organic cotton clothing or bamboo clothing can help reduce the Health concerns represent a potential source of benefits and demand for organic clothing.  Organic natural clothing is manufactured to last damage on farms and on workers. Enduring the normal life cycle and finally reaching a bio-degradable end naturally without creating any disturbance to the earth. Contrasting the synthetic fabrics, natural products do not diminish the earth’s resources.

Are there any more Social aspects involved to Organic clothing?

Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides and chemicals.  It also helps prevent farmer suicides as they get better prices and yields and also do not need to use harmful pesticides which affect their health.  As a responsible citizen we must contribute to the betterment of our natural environment with the help of our citizens. When someone buys for example, products from our company, not only do they sport clothes which do not contain harmful chemicals, but are also contributing to the environment in three ways.

  1. They are encouraging the growth of organic cotton which helps to keep the land free of harmful chemicals and fertilizers. 
  2. 10 percent of our sales amount is directly contributed to WWF which will help them undertake more conservation activities.
  3. (And most important) They are indirectly helping the farmers in higher realizations of money and keeping them healthy and debt free.

How do you witness the awareness among consumers and consciousness amongst producers?

Awareness among consumers is catching up fast; we have witnessed over 100 percent growth in our sales for the last two years and our projected growth should be around 300-500 percent in the next five years, one has to also understand this is a concept and not a commodity, people are beginning to get aware but since the industry size is not well defined, it will take time for accurate figures to emerge. Bigger industry players should take it as a responsibility to make more and more people aware and conscious about how they can bring a qualitative change in the environment by even partially switching to Organic clothing. According to EAI blog organic clothing market is growing at 35 percent in India, but not very significant in terms of the apparel industry size in India.

So, where do you see maximum chances for organic production to increase and demand to grow?

This may not be confined to one particular region or area, as we have seen with the advent of technology and easy access of internet to people even in tier 2 and tier 3 cities, we have customers buying on line on our web store from places like Lucknow, Ranchi, Varanasi, creating maximum awareness about the concept will be the key to growth for any player or market.

Mr. Jainam, please apprise us with the growth track that the Organic clothing in specific has followed for last decade-

Mr Jainam Kumarpal, Director Bhu:sattva,Organic Fabrics, Clothing makersUp to 2000, the market for organic cotton and eco-textiles was shaped by a few committed and leading companies, together with a wide range of small and medium-sized textile and clothing companies. Since then many new brands and retailers have started an organic cotton blending or conversion programme.

Market share of the big brands and retailers had increased between 1998 and 2001 from about one-third of global organic cotton fibre volume to about one-half, under the influence of the organic cotton blending programmes. Today, the estimated market share of large brands and retailers has increased to 58%.

According to Organic Exchange, global retail sales of organic cotton products stood at an estimated US$3.2 billion in 2008, up 63 percent year-on-year. The potential lies in the market for both domestic and international (export market) though domestic consumption is still at the nascent stage, which is expected to grow in future.

Ms. Shailini, which are prominent regions where cotton is grown organically, worldwide?

Ms. Shalini Sheth Amin, CEO of organic fabrics producer, Moral FibreAccording to the fourth annual Organic Exchange Farm and Fiber Report 2009, organic cotton production grew an impressive 20 percent over 2007/08 to 175,113 metric tons (802,599 bales) grown on 625,000 acres (253,000 hectares). Organic cotton now represents 0.76 percent of global cotton production. Organic cotton is grown in 22 countries worldwide with the Top Ten producer countries led by India and including (in order of rank) Turkey, Syria, Tanzania, China, United States, Uganda, Peru, Egypt and Burkina Faso.  Approximately 220,000 farmers grew the fiber.

And, how is the apparel industry involved with organic cotton? 

Apparel companies are developing programs that either use 100 percent organically grown cotton, or blend small percentages of organic cotton with conventional cotton in their products. Well known brands like Nike, Marks and Spencer, CO-OP, Patagonia, Timberland, Wal-Mart, Reebok, C&A, Hennes & Mauritz, Target, Next have been using organic cotton.  As a part of their CSR policy they are committed to use more and more of organic cotton.  Apart from that there are many smaller garment houses and the number is growing all the time.  In 2009, organic fiber sales in the United States grew by 10.4 percent over the previous year, to reach $521 million, according to the Organic Trade Association's 2010 Organic Industry Survey. The future looks promising, with organic fiber products appearing in more mainstream outlets, led by large Europe and U.S. textile retailers.

Can you please also provide us an overview on the market trends in this regards? 

The concept of ‘organic cotton’ is successfully being marketed to brands and retailers in the fashion industry as being part of their policies for CSR.

The new involvement of large brands and retailers increases the number of points of sale exponentially, making organic cotton items available to consumers in the usual points of purchase for textiles and clothing. Organic cotton items are increasingly found in regular sale channels such as high-street fashion shops, department stores, and supermarkets.

The involvement of large fashion brands and retailers in organic cotton use generates much attention from other parts of the textile industry, from designers and from the media. This further strengthens consumers’ interest in organic cotton textiles and clothing, and their willingness to purchase.

India is one of the biggest suppliers of organic cotton.  India needs to recognize its own traditionally grown rain fed cotton which follows organic practices but it is languishing without certifications.  This potential needs to be addressed to support thousands of poor cotton farmers.

Is organic cotton a sustainable solution?

There are a whole range of viewpoints on organic cotton with the most controversial being that farming cotton, organic or not, is not a sustainable option due to water availability. With many man-made fibres starting to mimic the touch, feel and handle of organic cotton, we will start to see cotton production levels falling and replacement fibres taking centre stage.
The WWF recently produced a report on cotton highlighting the work done by the Better Cotton Initiative and the wider issues surrounding cotton production. The report champions the idea of brands adopting a project to improve an aspect of their own cotton process – this could be from sourcing to ethical production or environmental impact.

One potential pit-fall is that in Europe, unlike organic food, there is no legal requirement for organic textiles to be certified and despite lobbying from the industry, "this is unlikely to change in the near future", according to Francis Blake from the Soil Association.

Purchasing an organic item of clothing is more of an emotional or philosophical decision, unlike the purchase of organic food which has obvious health benefits. But the indications are that consumers in the USA, Western Europe and parts of Asia are taking these decisions in larger numbers than ever before.

The next big challenge for the organic cotton industry is how to scale up to meet this growing demand without commoditizing the product and without lowering price points.

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