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Buyer Beware: How One Person Can Change the Fabric of an Industry

Buyer Beware: How One Person Can Change the Fabric of an Industry

I am often asked, "If you don't eat it, why would you care if your T-shirt is organic?"

I care because of how cotton is produced. Upon completion of the ginning process, where the seed and fiber are separated, cotton consists of 60% seed and 40% fiber. The fiber is shipped to textile mills to be spun into yarn for fabric. But cotton seed enters the food chain. Cottonseed oil is found in many processed snack foods, among them chips, cookies, crackers and salad dressings. Cotton seed is fed to livestock, dairy cattle and poultry as a high protein supplement.

"The current conventional cotton production system is heavily dependent upon pesticides and fertilizers," according to Organic Exchange. "Current data from USDA indicates that almost 6 pounds of pesticides are applied per acre. Pesticides used on cotton can cause a number of health risks. For example, several are rated as highly hazardous, able to cause sickness and even death."

In 2004, as the ladies apparel buyer for Sam's Club, I found myself responsible and accountable for the economic, environmental, and social impacts of tens of millions of textile garments that I purchased each year. The scale of such decisions was an enormous responsibility. Partnering with a current supplier, we made a choice to test organic cotton yoga wear, utilizing a “farm to shelf” vertical supply chain model.

In Spring 2005, the test of 190,000 organic cotton yoga tops and pants sold in just 10 weeks. The style and fit were what the consumer wanted, the fact that the product was made from organic cotton became the plus, the added value.

On the heels of the successful organic cotton product sales, a corporate, cross-functional sustainable fiber and organic cotton team was then launched. Our goal was to further develop this new business model, a model that engages stakeholders in horizontal collaboration throughout the supply chain, beginning at the farm-gate. (Fortune magazine recently wrote an excellent article on how it all turned out.)

In October 2005, I found myself in the San Joaquin Valley, California. As a child growing up in the 1960s, I had spent my summer vacations there on my grandparent's naturally, sustainable farm. Now, forty years later, visiting a conventional farm, I was there to view how cotton is harvested in the age of agribusiness.

I watched as crop dusters sprayed the conventional cotton fields with chemicals to defoliate the leaves from the cotton plant, to make the cotton fiber easier to pick. In contrast, organically grown cotton uses a natural process occurring during a seasonal freeze. The contrast was sharp and clearly visible. The conventional cotton was brown and lifeless, the organic cotton vibrant with leaves that were glossy and green. It was very clear: organic cotton was good for business and good for the environment.

(These farm tours are an educational and informative experience. Anyone that is accountable and responsible for any portion of the cotton supply chain would benefit from participating in a tour. For more information on cotton tours check out the Texas Tour on October 24 or the California Tour October 19.

It’s not just the “big box” retailers that are driving sales of organic cotton. According to the Organic Trade Association sales of U.S. and Canadian organic fiber sales grew by 40 percent in 2005 to $160 million. According to Organic Exchange data, organic cotton global sales grew from $245 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005. Global sales are projected to grow to $2.6 billion by the end of 2008.

This past week, in the Netherlands city of Utrecht, more than 275 people gathered at the Organic Exchange Global Conference, more than a third of them for the first time. I watched as farmers from India forged partnerships and lifetime friendships with brand managers from New York. Four short years ago when the group met in Lubbock, Texas, for the first time, they numbered 60.

Clearly, this is an emerging market for retailers, including the two pioneering retailers, Patagonia and Nike, as well as Timberland, American Apparel, Eileen Fisher, Prana, and many others.

For myself, it was the almost surreal realization that my business decisions alone could impact up to five million pounds of toxic chemicals entering our global ecosystems annually, impacting the health of farming communities and global ecosystems worldwide. For others it may be that for each article of cotton clothing they own, approximately five ounces of toxic chemicals were used to grow it.

Companies will move to the greening their cotton supply chain if it aligns with their corporate values, while others will simply get on the “trend train.” Either way, it is clear that organic cotton is changing the fabric of the textile industry.

Who will be next to hop on the organic cotton train?

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Coral Rose is the founder of Eco-Innovations Sustainable Textile Services (http://www.eco-textiles.com), and is a widely recognized agent of change with over twenty years experience, including senior management positions in merchandising and product development and sustainable textile product development for major retail corporations.

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