The Cotton Wars

Financial Times, March 2 2007

Organic versus sustainable? Pollutants versus pesticides? Environmentally- friendly or luxurious? Fiona Harkin asks who is putting who (or what) on themselves

First it was your chicken. Now it’s your cotton. What? That’s gone organic, of course. It was perhaps only a matter of time before the concerns about what we put in our bodies extended to what we put on our bodies, but now, as mass brand Levi’s launches its Eco range of denim in the US and Europe, UK supermarket chain Tesco teams up with veteran designer and outspoken activist Katharine Hamnett to launch organic cotton ranges for men, women and children, and upscale US department store Barneys launches its Green initiative, there’s no question: fashion is going eco.

But just how much – and how sincerely – remains the topic of a raging debate. Marketing organisations such as Cotton Incorporated in the US, which represents the region’s cotton growers and importers, are seeing the growth of the organic cotton sector and scrambling into a rather defensive action.

The organisation questions organic cotton’s sustainability. J Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated, recently wrote: “The words ‘organic and sustainable’ are being used with increasing frequency in food and apparel marketing. The two words are often used interchangeably, sending an erroneous message that non-organic cotton is not a sustainable fibre. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The production of organic cotton represents 1 per cent of the global market, and is forecast to rise to 10 per cent by 2015, according to Scott Hahn, co-founder of Loomstate, a New York-based organic apparel company that is a sister business to the Rogan jeans label and a partner of Edun, the “socially conscious” apparel brand set up by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson. “That translates to a $3-4bn loss in revenues for the chemical business,” he adds, noting that this is sure to influence Cotton Incorporated’s perspective as the organisation has strong ties with such companies.

Moreover, the biggest growth in the sector is from outside of the US – again affecting those farmers represented by Cotton Incorporated. Still, the organisation has raised valid questions. “Because there’s a lower yield than conventional cotton, it takes more land to produce organic cotton and more water. Because there is no pesticide use, the bugs have to be picked off by hand – which means more labour is required,” says Ric Hendee, vice-president of marketing services at Cotton Incorporated. The implication is that increased labour cannot qualify organic cotton as sustainable if crop sizes are to increase.

“It takes time to certify soil as organic and land has to lie fallow for three years before this can happen,” he adds. “The footprints for an organic crop have to be small. And it has to be grown away from other cotton crops so that pests don’t build up. It’s a different way of farming altogether.” Hendee points out that the use of animal fertilizer across a large piece of land could also have its own detrimental impact on the environmental. The overall message is that organic cotton is a niche product that isn’t necessarily sustainable and that incurs higher production costs that translate into premiums of 50-100 per cent in raw fibre prices. “Nonsense,” retorts Hamnett, who has been working with NGOs in Mali on the viability of organic cotton farming, and fires facts, figures and opinions on the subject with equal vigour. “Farmers in Mali incur a 20 per cent premium on their organic crops – and they’re left with soil that can be used to grow food crops afterwards.”

“It’s sustainable in the long term because farmers are left with a better quality of soil, which requires less use of chemical fertilizers,” agrees Loomstate’s Hahn. His view of organic cotton farming is, he admits, romantic, with its focus on smaller farms, crop rotation and rebuilding an environment naturally capable of dealing with pests – but it does call into question the viability of intensive farming that requires ever more chemical pesticide and fertilizer use.

At the same time, this is where the argument becomes more confusing, as each side lobs facts and figures about chemical usage across the media divide. “Each year, cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6bn worth of pesticides, more than 25 per cent of the world’s pesticides, on only 2.5 per cent of farmed land,” reads Loomstate’s company manifesto, quoting the Pesticide Action Network North America. “These pesticides poison farm workers, drift into neighbouring communities, contaminate water supplies, destroy beneficial insects and micro- organisms and kill more than 67m birds a year in the US. A pair of jeans uses three-quarters of a pound of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (throw in a T- shirt and you’re pushing a pound).”

But Cotton Incorporated insists that only 0.09 ounces of pesticides are used per pound of cotton produced, and that only 8.5 per cent of all pesticides applied to crops are used to grow cotton. However, the Organic Exchange, a California-based not-for-profit organisation, has stated that the use of synthetic fertilizers is not being included in these figures. Nonetheless, this doesn’t end the discussion. “Bt cotton” is a seed that has been genetically modified to make a bacterial toxin to kill leaf-eating boll weevil, the crop’s most significant pest. The hope was that by introducing this seed, the plants would become more robust and, therefore, more productive without having to use pesticides.

But according to Hamnett, the process is not so clear-cut. “Farmers in Mali are sold Bt cotton seed from a broker who is also an agent for the pesticide companies,” she says. “Bt cotton was supposed to eliminate the use of pesticides but the boll weevil has become resistant and the farmers have to buy more pesticides, which costs them more money. And don’t even get me started on the damage these pesticides do to the people who work with them.”

“Bt cotton resists certain pests, but it doesn’t eliminate all of them,” argues Hendee. “But if a farmer is looking to reduce the number of chemicals used then Bt cotton is still a good way of doing that.” He laments recent media coverage, which he claims is “25 per cent untrue”, and hits out at the scare tactics being used – but not before mentioning a recent outbreak of e-coli poisoning in the US traced back to the use of animal fertilizer on organic spinach.

Confusion and contradiction are rife and caught in the crossfire is the consumer. He or she may be “environmentally aware, but environmental intelligence is the next step,” says Hahn. The first lesson an environmentally intelligent consumer must learn is that while “organic” may not mean “sustainable”, the two terms are inextricably linked.

“It all goes back to the 1972 UN convention on the environment and development,” argues Hahn. “There was deadlock over the importance of the environment versus promoting growth and development. The final decision was to put the word ‘sustainable’ in front of ‘development’. Sustainable development – you can’t separate them. Organisations such as Cotton Incorporated are trying to protect their current model and it shows a lack of foresight.” Nonetheless, his jeans ranges still incorporate nylon and stretch Lycra. Surely that negates the organic factor? Not according to Hahn who believes that the consumer still demands certain qualities from a product and that Loomstate isn’t a tub-thumping, righteous company but one that he hopes can support sustainable development.

“We’re trying to reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides one step at a time, while still maintaining great design sensibility. Loomstate is the indie rock band of the industry, celebrating its contradictions,” says Hahn. In his view, the real bad guys are the synthetics companies, and the risk lies in losing ground to them if the consumer becomes too confused. Ultimately, this middle way – working towards a gradual reduction in chemical use and increased use of organic cotton – may be the best way forward for eco-style.

This will be particularly true when the availability of organic cotton supplies gets tested as the current eco trend truly takes off. If, say, a mass retailer such as Wal-Mart ordered 500,000 organic cotton T-shirts, there would surely be repercussions regarding quality and supply.

“All businesses respond to market forces, so yes [these companies] are jumping on the bandwagon, providing for the changing wants of their customer base,” explains Warren McLaren of Treehugger.com, an online magazine that promotes environmentally-friendly practices. “But they are also being strategic in making sure they have the bases covered in case this does turn out to be ‘the next big thing.'” McLaren cautions, however, that “supply will hold back organic cotton from taking the traditional cotton market by storm. For instance, Levi’s is not converting their entire line, just offering a dedicated eco line. Marks & Spencer states they plan on having 5 per cent of all the cotton they use organic by 2010. But they have been offering organic cotton product since 2000, so they seem in for the long haul.”

Levi’s remains adamant that its dedication to sustainable fashion stretches beyond the Eco range, which features coconut shell buttons and a green (not red) back pocket tab that is sure to attract those conspicuous eco-consumers among us. “We are committed to exploring ways to integrate organic cotton into more of our products and are actively looking at ways to incorporate more sustainable raw material use and production processes into our supply chain,” says Julie Davidson, marketing director for Levi’s in the UK and Ireland.

So, where does this leave the luxury industry? “I absolutely think that the main designer ready-to-wear brands will follow the eco direction,” says Christian Kemp-Griffin, CEO of Edun. “People like Katharine Hamnett and Ralph Lauren are already doing organic product and I believe it is just the beginning. I think the product changes will come gradually for the next five years before it hits a sort of tipping point. This is partly for trend and consumer acceptance reasons but also because the supply of organic cotton today is limited.”

Hamnett has taken a hard-line approach for her new Katharine E Hamnett range, which is produced by sourcing an entirely new ethical supply chain (steering clear of China because of its lack of trade unions) and using 100 per cent organic cotton. It is a business model that has significant appeal for the luxury sector.

“It’s no longer about brown teeth and ugly shoes,” she says of the traditional view of eco style. “I’m a designer and I like to work with delicate fabrics and beautiful cottons.” Indeed, Hamnett’s men’s and women’s ranges have achieved an impeccable quality, combined with a simple, youthful, brand-free design ethic. “No one’s going to buy it out of pity are they?” she says.

Moreover, the range’s worthy tagline, “designed environmentally; buy now and wear forever“, should strike a chord with those luxury goods companies seeking to add extra emotional value, quality and longevity to their products.

“Ultimately, I buy for style and fit; if something is organic, that’s a bonus,” confirms Levi’s Davidson about her own personal take on “dressing organic”. But the battles over organic cotton will only end when the market finds its footing. “It’s not a complicated situation, no-one is being deceptive,” says Hahn. “There’s just a lot of info missing.” He believes accountability and certification are needed to re-energise the organic label. “That’s where the war ends,” he adds.

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