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28 September 2016

Organic Cotton: The State of Play

Contributor Ethical Fashion Forum

Organic Cotton 1

As Organic September comes to a close in the UK, we take a look at the state of play of organic cotton as we review the Textile Exchange's Organic Cotton Market Report, and offer tips to brands looking to use organic cotton in their collections.

Twenty years ago, when outdoor brand Patagonia began switching all their cotton products to organic cotton they were almost a lone voice.

Now, Textile Exchange’s epic 78 page 2016 Organic Cotton Market Report published in July 2016 shows that there’s a lot of activity in the world of organic and sustainable cotton.

In addition to the work being done on organic cotton and textiles, including through the Organic Cotton Standard (OCS) from Textile Exchange, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), there are seven other initiatives covered in the report: Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cleaner Cotton, Cotton Made in Africa CmIA), e3, Fairtrade, Organic Cotton Round Table (OCRT) and Cotton Connect’s REEL Cotton.)

Then there are the platforms: Cotton 2040 from Forum for the Future; the Cotton ARC program’s Threading Natural Capital into Cotton, coordinated by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL); the Organic Cotton Accelerator; and the Chetna Coalition. Any business looking to access organic and more sustainable cotton now has a lot of help.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. Cotton is after all still a major global textile fibre, making up around 25% of the world’s fibre consumption in 2015.1 But is it bearing fruit? Is organic cotton farming benefiting farmers and the planet? Are brands and retailers taking it up?

Here are some of the figures:

  • Almost 200,000 certified organic farmers involved in the 2014/5 harvest,
  • producing over 100,000 MT of organic cotton,
  • potentially saving over 90m kg of CO2 compared with conventional cotton farming.2

Textile Exchange are optimistic saying the results of their market survey “show companies getting the mix right for sustainability”. And certainly the leaderboards are inspiring:

  • Top 10 Users by Volume; Top Users by Growth – recognising the companies that have made the biggest increases in their uptake of organic cotton over the past year;
  • Race-to-the-Top – celebrating those companies who are converting their ranges to organic cotton;
  • The 100% Club – featuring brands that have either started out 100% organic or have made the switch; and
  • The Organic Fairtrade Top 10

C&A top the list for sheer volume of organic cotton consumed, Inditex place second for increase; Eileen Fisher and Raven & Lily are racing to the top to convert to organic, and pioneering brands such as Armedangels, Sense Organics and PACT are showing it is possible to be successful and completely organic.

The leaders have increased their consumption of organic cotton from 20% in 2014 to 29% in 2015

There’s a sense of possibility of real change in these leaderboards; the leaders have increased their consumption of organic cotton from 20% in 2014 to 29% in 2015. The Global Organic Textile Standard’s 2015 annual report also shows growth with 3,814 GOTS certified facilities in 68 countries in 2015 compared with 3,663 in 63 in 2014.

Textile Exchange have also spotted a trend for increased organic cotton consumption and growth in India and China: “Brand Organic is growing: organic represents a strong, clearly understood and well-established mark of sustainability, spreading from the food, health and beauty sectors into fibers and textiles. Interest in healthy eating connects with a healthy lifestyle and further connects to choices for a healthy planet and healthy people. This trend is emerging in newer growth economies such as India and China.”

However, it’s not time to be complacent.

Only 89 companies responded to the Textile Exchange market survey. In June 2015 Solidaridad, PAN and WWF produced a scathing report robustly criticising most of the world’s major cotton brands and retailers of not doing enough. Just eight companies out of 37 made it out of the red zone in the Cotton Ranking Report, with research conducted by Rank-a-Brand, one of Europe’s largest brand-comparison sites on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. “It’s clear that just a few leading companies are doing the heavy lifting on sourcing sustainable cotton”, said Isabelle Roger, Global Cotton Programme Manager, Solidaridad. “For the cotton sector as a whole to become sustainable, all other major companies will need to get on board.”

The report claimed that uptake of sustainable cotton (in this case sustainable meaning one or more of organic, Fairtrade, CmiA or BCI) by companies, essential for mainstreaming sustainable cotton, remains too low at approximately 17% of what is available. i.e. most sustainably farmed cotton is just being sold as conventional. And if farmers can’t sell their hard worked for organic cotton at a good price then will they continue to invest in it?

The Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report backs this up, despite the positive stories, production of organic cotton is down slightly. (Interestingly in some places this is due to farmers turning to other, more lucrative, organic crops rather than reverting to conventional cotton.) Amit Shah, founder of the textile firm Spectrum International writes “As margins of organic cotton shrink, the business case for a farmer to conduct organic farming is shrinking with it. While all are still clearly able to see the advantages of organic farming in terms of soil health, product quality and biodiversity the fact remains that the economic risk of introducing organic farming is just too apparent. Until the farmers are paid for their environmental stewardship, this situation will not improve.”

What Can You Do?

Now is the time to act. Organic, and Organic Fairtrade, cotton is being grown – it just needs to get to market as organic to ensure that farmers continue to farm organically. If you are a brand looking to switch to organic (and other more sustainable) cotton, it has never been easier to access a wide selection of yarns and fabrics. All the initiatives listed above can help, particularly if you are looking to switch at scale. But it’s also possible for smaller brands. Here are our three top tips:

1. Ask your manufacturer

The more that manufacturers get asked for organic and organic Fairtrade cotton and ask their suppliers for it the more the industry will see the demand.

2. Discover leading suppliers

There are an increasing number of fabric suppliers and sourcing companies that specialise in organic and sustainable fabrics and can often supply in small as well as large volumes. These include Barkha’s Custom Sourcing, Ecological Textiles,, Les Trouvailles d’Amandine,, Mehera Shaw, Nature’s Fabrics, Organic Cotton Colours, and Lebenskleidung.

3. Be persistent

It took Patagonia six years of research before they were first able to commit to switching, it is quicker now. But be flexible. If you can’t find the yarn or fabric in the quality or minimums you want consider how you might adapt your designs to what is available.

The Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report which provides a deep dive into the global production, consumption, key trends, challenges and opportunities is available for purchase here.

Or download a free overview here.


[1]Source: ICAC, CIFRS, The Fiber Year, The Fiber Organon, Lenzing estimates

[2]Water, Energy and CO2savings based on “Textile Exchange and thinkstep, 2014. Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton.”

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