While the interest in organic cotton seems to be increasing, it is suffering some growing pains.

This story first appeared in the November 13, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The just-released “2011 Organic Cotton Market Report,” published by Textile Exchange, shows that even though 81 percent of brands and retailers responding to its market survey indicated they plan to expand their use of organic cotton, production was down 37 percent in 2011.

The decline came mostly in India, the origin of almost 70 percent of organic cotton. Four primary reasons underpin the fall: problems in cotton seed supply, economic uncertainty, stringent requirements in India and shifts by some companies away from organic or fair-trade initiatives. The disparity in sales and production also indicates usage of excess inventory following weak demand when the recession hit in 2010.

However, the report said, “Based on the growth rates, 2011 retail sales clock in at an estimated $6.8 billion, overshooting our estimate in last year’s report of $6.2 billion. If growth continues at the same rate, the market will reach $8.9 billion in 2012.”


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The top five organic cotton users in 2011 were H&M, C&A, Nike, Inditex (Zara) and Anvil Knitwear. Consumers consider need, utility, price, perceived value, identity, personal and cultural values, and aesthetics when looking to buy, the report said, and companies need to tell their organic and sustainable materials stories so that conscious consumers know where to direct their loyalty. Projected increases in population combined with “fast fashion” and its inherently short product life cycles, along with limited solutions for end-of-life recovery, make waste and landfills both business and environmental issues.

The textile, apparel and footwear industries continued to collaborate on and adopt programs like the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco-Index, now the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Higg Index, and Greenpeace’s Detox and Dirty Laundry campaigns, which led to the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals program, a consortium of brands and retailers who have committed to Zero Discharge by 2020. Brands and retailers also report that they anticipate increasing the options in their sustainable cotton portfolios, organic in particular.

“Effective approaches range from communicating seasonal materials and product forecasts and developing closer relationships between manufacturers, fiber suppliers and farm groups to formally or informally committing to purchase fiber,” the report said. “Farmers, without clear direction from brands and retailers — for organic cotton in particular — are increasingly choosing to plant different crops or shift toward other cotton options…where farmers see a clear demand. We also recognize the important role other initiatives, such as the Better Cotton Initiative, Fairtrade and Cotton Made in Africa, play in making cotton agriculture a more sustainable endeavor.…Ultimately, initiatives with lower barriers to entry are a step in the right direction and can play a critical role in improving conventional farming and helping brands make the transition to organic.”

TE also recommends embracing full-cost accounting that takes into consideration the funds needed for restoring depleted resources. Verification through certification to a recognized chain-of-custody standard is also important to protect investments and ensure change is happening in the field. The OE 100 and OE Blended standards were written to support organic content claims, from 5 to 100 percent, and more than 2,000 manufacturers are already certified to these standards, TE points out. The standards track the raw material from the fiber to the finished product. In 2013, the Organic Content Standard will replace the OE standards and will verify organic claims for all fibers, not just cotton.