NEW YORK — A growing list of major apparel brands and retailers are appealing to consumers’ sense of environmental responsibility by incorporating organic cotton into their products.

While the cotton industry welcomes any increased usage of its product, there is uneasiness with consumers equating organic cotton with being environmentally friendly or even sustainable in the long run.

“Words and terms are very important,” said Roy Cantrell, vice president of agricultural research for Cotton Inc. “There’s a lot of confusion about sustainability. The truth is that sustainability has nothing to do with organic or conventional products. Either can be sustainable. But it’s inaccurate to always equate organic with being sustainable.”

The conventional cotton industry has come under increasing attack over its use of genetically engineered seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and water usage. For example, organic apparel manufacturer Loomstate lists on its Web site the more common accusation against conventional cotton farming. The site contends that conventional cotton production consumes 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of its pesticides, many of which reach the food chain either through water runoff or from cattle who are fed part of the plant. A single T-shirt requires a third of a pound of pesticide and fertilizer, according to the site.

Cotton Inc. has recently gotten more aggressive in defending the practices of its farmers, but is devoting efforts to craft a message that focuses on sustainability.

“It’s hopefully informative and reassuring to focus on sustainability,” said Cantrell. “We have a lot of data looking at the trends in things like pesticide use, improvements in cotton production practices…and we feel like it’s important to get that message out.”

At a recent conference of cotton growers, Edward Barnes, associate director of agricultural research at Cotton Inc., presented the results of studies that showed cotton did not require excessive amounts of water.

“Grass uses more water than cotton in Mississippi and just about anywhere else,” said Barnes. “This idea that cotton is some kind of water hog is just an invention.”

For Cantrell, one of the sticking points concerning organic cotton is that it requires more labor, which ultimately prevents it from qualifying as a sustainable form of production. Requirements vary depending on geography.

This story first appeared in the July 11, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“In some areas due to rainfall or rotation crops you may be able to control weeds naturally and those labor requirements would drop dramatically,” said Cantrell. “Unfortunately, there’s not many [of those areas] in the world.”

Cantrell also worries that negative publicity of cotton, which he believes is often based on incorrect data, will lead people to turn to alternate fibers.

“If we don’t produce the fiber with the best technology and in a sustainable manner, then demand will be met by synthetic fiber,” said Cantrell.

Organic sustainability becomes an issue when it comes to producing larger crops, according to Cantrell. Organic cotton requires more labor, more land and more water. However, yields are lower. Cantrell points out that use of manure as fertilizer over a large area can present similar environment pollution issues as those raised by the use of synthetics.

“All of these together can be managed on a small scale as long it is carefully managed and remains a niche,” said Cantrell.

Growth of organic cotton has surged in recent years. According to the Organic Trade Association, 6,577 acres of organic cotton were planted in the U.S. in 2005, up 62 percent from 4,060 acres planted in 2003.

Growth has been even more explosive in the retail sector. According to the Organic Exchange, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that supports production of organic goods, global retail sales are expected to reach $1.07 billion in 2006 and are forecast to reach $2.62 billion by 2008.

Rebecca Calahan Klein, president of Organic Exchange, said she has noticed conventional cotton groups being more vocal about defending their practices and agrees that Cotton Inc. has put up strong challenges to their critics.

“We see organic as a way to reduce chemical use and water use and improve biodiversity,” said Klein. “If there are other ways [farmers] can do that they should know about it.”

Klein believes there are some problems with the way in which Cotton Inc. is presenting its data. For instance, Klein points out that because conventional farming methods don’t incorporate crop rotation, fields must be fertilized before planting. Klein asserts that Cotton Inc.’s numbers don’t include use of synthetic fertilizers used to prepare the soil before planting. Information concerning use of defoliants is also not readily available, which is another area not being considered in the numbers.

While there is ample data to mine about the use of chemicals on conventional cotton, there is very little information regarding the practices of organic farming that would prove it is scientifically more eco-friendly. As a result, the impact of using raw manure on a wide area of crop land, for example, isn’t exactly known.

“There is not a huge database of info available,” concedes Klein. “The U.S. government every year decides how much of their budget to put into farm research. There’s very little dollars going into organic farming.”

Klein points out, however, that once fields have been built up through natural methods of fertilization they are more balanced and generally require less fertilizer.

Klein said the goal of Organic Exchange is to double the acreage of organic cotton production every year for the next 10 years, making organics account for 10 percent of global production.

Apparel brands are responding to increased acceptance of the organic message among consumers.

“Companies are starting to realize the tipping point has arrived and that people want organics,” said Scott Hahn, co-founder of Loomstate. “It’s a big transition. The smarter the consumer gets, the more discerning they are getting, even at the lower-priced stuff.”

Hahn acknowledged that organic is not the same as sustainable, but he believes Loomstate is keeping the issues simple.

“We’re trying to eliminate the pesticide use and the toxic chemicals,” said Hahn. “There’s just fact around it. It’s effecting more than just the soil. We’re not preaching as being the all-mighty environmental brand that has all the right answers.”

Most brands are moving ahead on using organics based on its marketing as a process that has a lower impact on the planet, despite a lack of long-term studies and data that prove this. Mavi Jeans recently introduced a line of organic denim into its collection for holiday 2006.

“Our message is to better environmental practices,” said Paul Witt, vice president of marketing for the Turkish denim company.

Organics will represent about 5 percent of the company’s businesses.

Levi’s was the most recent company to announce that it was going organic. Jeans using organic cotton will be identified as Levi’s Eco and will be available in November.

“Consumers have a better understanding of the benefits of buying organic,” said Robert Hanson, president of Levi’s U.S. business, pointing out that the company made an earlier attempt at organics in the early Nineties.

That attempt failed largely because the quality of the fabric was not high enough.

“We think the time is right because the quality of the fabric is the best that it’s ever been,” Hanson said.

The organic products, which will be available at all Levi’s price points, will account for 1 percent of U.S. volume.

Hanson believes as organic cotton becomes more popular it will come under the same sort of scrutiny as conventionally produced cotton. Until that time, Hanson and Levi’s believe it is reasonable to market organics based on the underlying philosophy that it’s cleaner and has less impact on health and the environment.

“What we’ve found in our research is that most consumers are aware of what organic means and what the benefits are,” said Hanson. “Consumers understand the impact organics can have on the environment and that things can end up in the food chain.”

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