Given the popularity of WGP’s SOY UNDERWEAR column, today we answer the question:
What is ‘organic cotton’?
Simply put, 'organic' cotton is non-genetically modified cotton grown without the use of inorganic pesticides and fertilizers. Okay. That said, what’s the big deal?
The answer is tied to this fact -- less than a third of all cotton grown in the world today is GM, genetically-modified cotton. I.e., , it's not that GM cotton is so prevalent. But, less than 0.1 percent of all cotton is grown without using inorganic pesticides and fertilizers.
So the 'organic' label bears on the fact that the cotton is grown without "inorganic" pesticides and fertilizers. Not that it doesn't use some form of pesticide and fertilizers. Perhaps you can see where we're going with this.
The real issue with "organic cotton," it seems to us, is who is reaping the profits.
Cotton fibre is the fabric of life in Asia, Africa and South America. Globally, more than 50 million farmers grow it, but many receive a low price. There’s a fast-growing niche for organic, or low-input cotton. But the question, posed by Camilla Toulmin Director of the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), is, "How can we be sure that the increasing demand and premiums for organic, or low-input cotton, will bring better prices to farmers and not just benefit others in the supply chain?" In other words, those glossy, high-end marketers of the stuff we see on the internet.
Organic cotton sells for up to 20 percent more than non-organic cotton and the amount produced, not surprisingly, has increased by 35 percent a year since 2002.
The viability of cotton farming, however, hangs by a thread. Industry analysts attribute current low market prices for raw cotton to the oversupply of subsidized American cotton on the world market. American farmers receive $3.5 billion in subsidies. Most developing country farmers receive no subsidies but suffer the consequences of lower world market prices.
"Despite successful appeals led by Brazil, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Chad and a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that has stipulated to the US government that its cotton subsidies contravene global trade rules," says Toulmin, "the US seems happy to ignore the multilateral rules when it suits its interests."
LOOK FOR THE NON UNION (EU) LABEL -- DON'T BUY IT AS WELL
After fierce lobbying from Spain, the European Union (the EU) has also recently postponed reducing its support to EU cotton growers.
' organic' cotton bloomers
So, if you’re going to buy right, here’s the cotton club you want to be a member of. To support the two million cotton farmers in West Africa, a number of initiatives to increase returns are underway. "Currently farmers in Mali get 165 francs per kilo of seed cotton," explains Toulmin. "But costs of production are more like 180-190 francs a kilo."
In Mali, organic cotton certified to European standards is supported by Helvetas, a Swiss NGO. Standards linking ecological criteria with fair trade and social justice concepts for cotton are also promoted by Max Havelaar and the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation to give growers a premium considerably above the conventional price.
In Benin and Burkina Faso an alliance (GTZ, the German technical agency, the OTTO clothing group and local textile companies) is pushing ahead with introducing reduced pesticide use, and forging closer links between growers and buyers.
On a more global scale, the Better Cotton Initiative of UNEP, WWF and others aims to set standards in West Africa, Asia and Brazil at a level, which could involve 50 percent of cotton producers; in contrast to the much smaller proportion likely to attain Fairtrade and organic certification, estimated at around five percent.
So, if you want to wear "organic cotton" with a social conscience it’s not the pesticides and inorganic fertilizers you should be most concerned with – it’s making sure the cotton itself comes from the above sources.