I had an interesting conversation last week with Drayton Mayers, the Director for Southeast Asia and Industry Services for Cotton Council International (CCI). He quizzed me over organic vs sustainability, in which camp did I fall? This is not an idle question; these aren’t necessarily the same thing. A lot of statistics are bandied about, who’s right? For example, it is frequently said that the average tee shirt requires 160 gallons of water but how much of that is dictated by the requirements of the end user in the application of dyes and fixatives? Most people hear that figure and think the water usage amounts to irrigation needs but according to the FAQ at Cotton.org, “Only 35% of U.S. cotton acreage requires some form of irrigation—the rest of the cotton land is supplied by natural rainfall. Furthermore, producers have become more efficient in their water usage. Compared to 25 years ago, U.S. farmers are now using 45% less water to grow a pound of cotton.”
Again, how much of the public demand for organic cotton is a false choice? Can current cotton production standards be sustainable but not organic? If it is true (and from what I’ve seen, it is) that the greater expenditure of resources is involved with end processing of consumer goods as opposed to growing, why aren’t consumers -and manufacturers- up in arms over that? It’s always struck me as hypocritical that a lot of hipster tee producers flog their products using anti-corporate consumptive mantras while substantively contributing to ecological devastation themselves. This is one of the reasons I’m excited by new dye technologies such as REHANCE from TS Designs.
Then Drayton and I discussed the increase in apparel and bedding items labeled as organic. I can’t get a hard and fast figure on the increase in products labeled organic but it would seem to be much higher than organic cotton production. For example, according to AG Professional, the increase in organic cotton by U.S. growers is only 14 percent.
GREENFIELD, Mass. — U.S. acreage planted to organic cotton in 2005 increased 14 percent from that planted the previous year, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and funded by a grant from Cotton Incorporated.
In results released today, OTA’s organic cotton survey found 13 farmers grew and harvested organic cotton in the United States during 2005. Farmers in 2005 planted 6,325 acres of organic cotton, an increase of nearly 14 percent over the 5,550 acres planted in 2004. In addition, acreage planted in 2006 totaled 6,254 acres. Harvesting figures for 2006 are not yet available.
In other words, is it possible that products labeled organic are not? From Cotton.org:
Interest in organic cotton has increased among retailers and brands but there is no sustained, measurable increase in the organic cotton supply, which is estimated at only 0.1% of global cotton production. In fact, the entire world supply of organic cotton would fit on one medium-sized cargo ship…From a production perspective alone, it would take an additional 6 million acres – 40 percent of the current harvested cotton acreage in the U.S.—to meet the current market demand for U.S. cotton.
If any of you have some statistics explaining the discrepancies between sewn product output labeled organic vs total international organic cotton production, I’d like to see those. I’m wondering how big the problem is and how many manufacturers are buying goods labeled organic that in fact, are not.
At the Cotton.org site, there are other interesting factoids in the debate over sustainability vs organic, one being the use of pesticides. According to the website, only .09 ounces pesticides are applied per pound of cotton produced and that is dropping dramatically in the US as “farmers who live and work on their land have every personal and economic incentive to use FEWER chemicals in production, not more”. Additionally, the site asserts that “only 8.5% of all pesticides applied to crops are used to grow cotton” which contradicts the oft quoted “over half of all the pesticides used in the US are used in cotton production”. I’m not trying to defend corporate cotton production here, I’m genuinely curious and wondering if organics haven’t been A) oversold and B) a vehicle for exploitation (of sewn product producers and consumers) in product mislabeling.