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Cotton’s Green Push

Cotton Incorporated hosted its inaugural Cotton Sustainability Summit last week in Yosemite National Park.

FISH CAMP, Calif. — The fabric of our lives wants to go greener.

Capping a new marketing push that attempts to tout cotton production’s environmental edge over petroleum-derived textile competitors, Cotton Incorporated hosted its inaugural Cotton Sustainability Summit last week in Yosemite National Park, attended by retail executives, brand representatives, scientists and cotton farmers from both organic and conventional sectors.

For advocates of fair trade and organic cotton in attendance, the conference underscored a troubling hurdle: Public opinion on the importance of sustainable fabrics remains soft, despite considerable media attention in recent months to climate change and the environmental impact of industry and agriculture.

According to one Cotton Inc. study, the eco-friendliness of a garment continues to rank well below other considerations for consumers, namely, fit, style and price. “The consumer mindset 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.”

Many brand reps and retailers in attendance said they were undeterred by the equivocal consumer support for sustainable goods. Wal-Mart, 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 to rate its suppliers. The program is part of the retailer’s goal of a 5 percent reduction in all supply-chain packaging by 2013.

The program, however, is not a punitive system, explained Kim Brander, Wal-Mart’s corporate brand manager for sustainable textiles. “Instead we focus on what can be improved upon and on coaching better business practices [with our suppliers].”

Sarah Severn, director of sustainability horizons at Nike, detailed the company’s similar eco-index for new product. Using factors such as waste production, PVC usage 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.

“People say customers aren’t asking for this,” said Severn. “Well, that’s not really true. We create the market. … Don’t wait for the consumer; let’s lead them there.”

Organic cotton, which costs upwards of 100 percent more than conventionally grown cotton due to lower yields, a segregated supply chain and reliance on manual labor, will never be a viable option for many larger retailers, said Graham Burden, the sustainable textiles and cotton specialist for British department store chain 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.

Attendees stopped short of endorsing a new label for fair trade or sustainable cotton to complement the existing USDA Organic Seal. “We don’t want to create another label because it would only confuse the consumer more,” said Liz Muller, an independent environmental consultant and former chair of the Better Cotton Initiative. “My passion is to get to a point where there is no need for this additional label.”