Organic vs sustainability

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, “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

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 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.

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  1. Alison Cummins says:

    “Organic” has no legal meaning and can be applied to anything by anyone, which is why it’s not surprising to see a discrepancy between what is certified organic by an organisation and what is labelled organic.

    Not everyone understands the difference between “organic” and “certified organic,” and not everyone knows the names of the most reputable certifying organisations. (The OCIA is the one that comes to my mind; “Québec Bio” was around for a while but I haven’t seen it recently; I don’t know the others. I’ve seen stuff “certified organic” by an organisation called something like “international commercial manufacturers inc,” or anyway some name which suggests that it’s an organisation that would have pretty minimal standards for certification.

    Certification isn’t everything. Because certification costs money, the small gardener around the corner might have lovely organic produce but no certification. Sometimes I decide to trust a brand, like the MEC which has a good reputation, without checking for certification status.

    Beyond that, who is setting up organic vs sustainable as being opposing concepts? Why would they be? (Sustainable sounds like such an odd concept to me. Our current population is not sustainable. The current combination of western wealth and security is not sustainable. But that’s my hobby horse and I’ll get off it now.)

  2. Jon Cloud says:

    I am proud to say that after 20 years of work, effective Dec. 22, 2006 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) placed within its regulatory control all organic food products sold internationally (imported and exported) and inter-provincially. Now, most of the consumers of Canada will be protected from the misuse of the term organic by companies importing or shipping products inter-provincially. Yet there is much to be done as it is up to the individual provinces to regulate the term organic for foods produced and sold within its borders. (I have many examples of where fraud is occurring at farmers markets and by local produce stands buying and selling their conventionally grown products as organic. They can get away with it as long as they sell it in the province of Ontario. I have even submitted the publications and advertising to the provincial government staff responsible for organic agriculture in Ontario. The provincial representatives took no action to inform or educate the individuals misusing the term organic. The Ontario staff has been in active and apparently unconcerned with the fraudulent claims occurring at many farmers markets. Hopefully, the regulatory controls instituted by the federal government for production, processing and labeling of organic products will shame the provinces in to protecting it citizens and developing or adopting the federal organic standards for intra-provincial trade.

    This process has not been easy. I know this personally as I have been working for nearly 20 years to get the government to adopt and regulate the term organic, organically grown, certified organic, etc. Part of the task is complete. We have a number of areas still requiring work: Cosmetics (in my opinion one of the biggest areas of rip off), Intra-Provincial production, processing and labeling, Fiber and Apparel, Lawn Care and Pet Food.

    Lets look at fiber and especially cotton. The production of organic cotton in the US was only started about 10 years ago. It, like all the other commodities, has been a slow process of converting and educating farmer on real production methods (no more plant, fertilize and spray) involving crop rotations and soil building. Yet, we have passed the 6,000 acres mark. (I started in organic agriculture 35 years ago when the total of all crops raised organically in all of Canada was less than 6,000 acres.) The industry has grown and come a long way since then. This growth has come from consumers demanding something better. The organic industry is driven by the consumer. We owe the success to you. Now the organic food is being regulated it is time to look at the “international cotton” crops. Many third world countries could not afford the pesticides or nitrate fertilizers to produce cotton. Thus, they have land ready for organic production. This has occurred in most of the second and third world countries where cotton has historically been produced. The global acreage under organic cotton production is growing rapidly but no one has a handle on the actual tonnage. This is potentially a ripe area of “misrepresentation” of the integrity of the product and its organic status. Most reputable and experienced companies demand proof (organic certificates from known organic certification organization in good standing) from the sellers prior to shipping the fiber or yarns. Usually, the best known organic certification organizations are from Europe, North America and Japan. OCIA, of which I was a founder both of the national organization and the international organization is only one of many of the organic certification organizations. There are approximately 35 organic certification organizations in Canada and all of them are registered and accredited by CFIA. Let me be clear, THERE ARE HUGE DIFFENECES BETWEEN SUSTAINABLE AND ORGANIC. Sustainable has become a marketing catch phrase that is not controlled or regulated by government agency. It means about as much as the word NATURAL. Until the governments of the world decide they have a primary responsibility to protect its consumers words like sustainable and natural will be used to dupe the consumer and tear their hearts out through their pocket book. Natural and Sustainable have NO PROGRAM OR COMMITMENT TO SOIL BUILDING, PREVENTING ERSION, PREVENTING DESSERTIFICATION, SOLVING GOLBAL WARMING BY ADDING ORGANIC MATTER (carbon) TO THE SOIL, BUILDING WILDLIFE HABITATS IN HEDGEROWS, OR PREVENTING GROUND WATER CONTAMINATION (nitrate fertilizers, and highly soluble phosphate fertilizers). These issued are addressed and each of the above are performed on each organic farm every year as the farmer undergoes organic certification renewal. The difference between organic and sustainable is huge, all you have to do is ask someone who has spent their life trying to change the way people farm, eat, and what they wear. The organic industry has worked hard with thousands of volunteers to make sure the consumer understand there are real standards, regulation and requirements before the word organic can be used on labels or advertising claims.

    Jon Cloud
    The Organic Cotton Company.

  3. Josh says:

    I have an aunt and uncle that grow sweet potatoes. They told me once a few years ago that they labeled sweet potatoes organic when they were in fact NOT organic. Knowing it was wrong. I was pretty outraged and have doubted the organic label ever since. So your suspicions are correct. Seems to me if it’s happening in sweet potatoes it’s happening in cotton. I’ve seen my aunt and uncle use pesticides so strong that it would knock birds and snakes on their feet in an instant.

  4. Mary Beth says:

    Thanks, Jon! As an early participant in efforts to establish “organic” certification in my state, I can only guess the efforts you have made to bring the process along as far as you have. I appreciate your input here!

  5. Vesta says:

    First, the US is certainly not the only country producing certified organic cotton. We are working with people in India who are growing it, certified by Skal:
    So it’s hard to compare what’s appearing on the shelves to what’s being grown in the US alone. Any big company that is using organic cotton (Patagonia, MEC, even Nike, etc) is getting most of it internationally, anyway.

    Second, I’ve heard a figure more like 25% of the pesticides are used on cotton. I’m a tad short on time, but I recommend checking out Organic Exchange for such tidbits of info:
    They are an organization targeted specifically at getting people like us to use certified organic cotton. I would maintain that Cotton Inc has very good reasons to convince us that we don’t need to worry about a pesky little thing like pesticide, when choosing to purchase cotton textiles.

    Third, while I’m totally on board with organics, I’m here to tell you that organics don’t tell the whole story, which is why we need terms like sustainable. What about recycled polyester? What about hemp, which is generally grown without pesticides? What about the fact that flax is also generally grown without pesticides, but yields very little per acre, compared to hemp, e.g. What about transportation of our products and inputs? All of these things and many, many more factor into what I consider to be sustainability. “Organic” just doens’t even scratch the surface, although it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

    Gotta go. But I couldn’t let y’all play fast and loose with my favorite word in the world:

  6. Trish says:

    This is an interesting thread and I wanted to share the newest email from The Color Association…Making Green The New Black… it goes on to say, “Green design is an overriding trend in all markets as more and more people become aware of environmental concerns. Some designers are taking a fresh approach towards creating sustainable products by using ordinary materials in unusual ways. As green design grows, it will eventually become not just a niche market, but a lifestyle where everyday products blend the eco-conscious with the style-conscious, shedding the tree-hugger stereotypes typically associated with “going green”. ”

    The Color Association []

  7. Jess says:

    “I’ve seen my aunt and uncle use pesticides so strong that it would knock birds and snakes on their feet in an instant.”

    Snakes have feet? hehe

  8. Megan says:

    Interesting conversation…I pretty much avoid organics as much as anything else…I don’t buy something “just” because it’s labeled organic. Some of the organic veggies in the market look gross so I go with the regular ones and figure life goes on.

    The issue of eco-friendly doesn’t apply just to food or clothing though…even jewelers are subject to questions. Using coral in jewelry can be tricky if you aren’t sure of your sources. Or mined stones even. But mostly people seem concerned about things like pearls and coral where an “animal” is involved (although pardon me if I don’t consider an oyster an animal…it’s food!). :)

    But it’s still a fascinating conversation.

  9. MW says:

    According to the website, only .09 ounces pesticides are applied per pound of cotton produced and that is dropping dramatically in the US

    I think it becomes easy for organizations to look at things from a US point of view. Usually, when studies like that are compiled, it takes organizations that are large enough to report and participate in the study. Farming, in many countries, is still a very old school process and while I am sure that on a global level the overall amount of pesticides is lower than it has been, that doesn’t mean that in some areas the amount is still alarmingly high. Especially in countries that don’t have a comparable level of environmental regulation that we have here.

    I also wanted to point out that Vesta’s link says that CERTIFIED organic cotton is 0.1% of cotton production, while Cotton Inc says organic cottin is 0.1%, maybe that also accounts for a big difference in what is marketed as organic and the numbers given. I’m sure that there’s much more organic cotton produced, but not certified.

  10. Jennie Moon says:

    I find this argument very interesting especially since I am a manufacturer or children’s clothing in Australia. e don’t use Organic cotton for everything however if the price is reasonable and the source of cotton good we will buy it. In Australia we have absolutely no water so growing organic cotton is simply not viable. I am interested in using Organic Cotton but I am concerned about how buying the fabric from India and importing it into Australia effect’s the environment also. What is best buying fabric from India and shipping it such a long distance or using locally made fabric and making locally to reduce how my business effects the world?

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