By  on October 5, 2007

FISH CAMP, Calif. — Many brand representatives and retailers at a Cotton Inc. conference here said they were undeterred by a study that showed equivocal consumer support for sustainable goods.

"People say customers aren't asking for this,'' said Sarah Severn, director of sustainability horizons at Nike Inc. "Well, that's not really true. We create the market...don't wait for the consumer, let's lead them there."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, is implementing a scorecard system to measure the amount of packaging, greenhouse gas emissions, the impact of dyes used and other considerations for its suppliers. The program is part of the retailer's goal for a 5 percent reduction in all supply chain packaging by 2013.

The initiative is not a punitive, said Kim Brander, Wal-Mart's corporate brand manager for sustainable textiles. "Instead, we focus on what can be improved upon, and to coach better business practices [with our suppliers]."

Severn detailed Nike's similar eco-index for new product. Using factors such as waste production and organic cotton content, the index rates footwear on a gold-silver-bronze scale, and mandates that all footwear receive a gold-level rating by 2011.

Capping a new marketing push that seeks to tout cotton production's environmental edge over petroleum-derived textile competitors, Cotton Inc. hosted the inaugural Cotton Sustainability Summit this week in Yosemite National Park for retail executives, brand representatives, scientists and cotton farmers from organic and conventional sectors.

For advocates of fair trade and organic cotton, the conference underscored a hurdle: Public opinion on the importance of sustainable fabrics remains soft despite increased scrutiny because of climate change, and the environmental impact of industry and agriculture.

The eco-friendliness of a garment continues to rank well below other considerations for consumers, including fit, style and price, according to a Cotton Inc. study. "The consumer mind-set is somewhere else," said Mark Messura, vice president of Cotton Inc.'s global product supply chain. "There's been a proliferation of the green market, but consumers are still confused and have misunderstandings....Bundling organic with other attributes [of a garment] is still better than featuring organic as the sole attribute."Organic cotton, which costs as much as 100 percent more than conventionally grown cotton because of lower yields, a segregated supply chain and reliance on manual labor, will never be a viable option for larger retailers, said Graham Burden, the sustainable textiles and cotton specialist for the U.K.'s Marks & Spencer. "We simply can't afford for our clothing to be completely organic. What we need is a standard for better cotton."

To that end, Burden outlined his company's involvement in fair trade cotton programs with farmers in developing nations. Though the cotton produced wouldn't qualify to be branded organic, farmers must adhere to child labor requirements and pesticide reduction.

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