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Big Retailers Help Organic Cotton Market Surge 20%

Words by Leon Kaye

The textile industry has massive footprints.  The growth of fast fashion, of which cotton is the dominant fiber, has had effects on energy, water, the environment, and on people.  But with a change in supply chain and sourcing from some of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers, organic cotton production is on the rise.  With the amount of chemicals and fossil fuels necessary to grow conventional cotton, organic cotton’s rise is a welcome trend.

A new market report estimates that the global organic cotton market will increase 20 percent in 2011 to an estimated US$6.2 billion value.  That total will increase to US$7.4 billion next year, according to the Global Market Report on Sustainable Textiles.  So who is fueling this increase?

The European discount retailers H&M and C&A lead the list of the top ten cotton sourcing retailers.  The list also includes Nike, Zara, Adidas, Target, and Disney.  American companies Greensource and Anvil, along with Germany’s Otto Group, round out this list.  Fueling the growth in organic cotton sourcing are the countless manufacturers who supply warehouse stores, department stores, and internet retailers with everything from yoga exercise clothing to high-end designer wear.

The cotton industry has touted the decrease of pesticides on farming land devoted to growing the crop; the flip side is that more genetically modified cotton accounted for part of that decrease.  Estimates suggest anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of all pesticides and insecticides are used on cotton farms, and the crop consumes vast amounts of fertilizer.  One trade organization estimates that almost one-third of a pound is needed to raise one pound of cotton.  Edward Hume’s recent book about Walmart’s “green” transformation details an encounter where a sustainability consultant tosses a plastic bag at an executive to demonstrate how many chemicals go into the production of a cotton dress shirt.

Speaking of Walmart, despite the company’s commitment to organic cotton, the world’s largest retailer did not make the list.  Why?  Well, part of the issue is that the company has a long and tangled supply chain.  But farms cannot switch to organic cotton overnight and on average need about three years to be certified as an organic farm.  To that end, several years ago Walmart started a line of “transitional cotton” clothes, which helped keep some farmers in business while they made the shift to organic cotton.  And in fairness, Walmart has topped lists of organic cotton buyers in the past.

Watch for organic cotton’s presence to grow as more consumers learn about its benefits and organizations like Better Cotton Initiative work to make cotton production both more lucrative and sustainable.

Leon Kaye is a consultant, writer, and editor of GreenGoPost.com and also contributes to The Guardian Sustainable Business; you can follow him on Twitter.  He lives in Silicon Valley.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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