Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Europe, Food and Agriculture, Global, Headlines

Counting the Cost at 2,600 Litres of Water a T-Shirt

Frank Mulder

UTRECHT, The Netherlands , Mar 24 2012 (IPS) - The share of organic cotton is increasing in an unstable cotton market, thanks to big European retailers like H&M and C&A who’ve jumped on the bandwagon of offering organic clothing at a low price. But whether this benefits the farmer is another matter.

The worldwide demand for cotton is a heavy burden for the planet. About 2,600 litres of water are needed to grow the cotton for one T-shirt.

Moreover, cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop, not only degrading the soil and drinking water, but also placing many farmers in debt.

Organic cotton offers a partial solution to this problem, because it is grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. Until recently, it was sold mainly by fashionable shops targeting high end consumers. They are now being beaten by popular retailers like Swedish H&M and Dutch C&A. In 2010 they were the two biggest users of organic cotton globally, according to Textile Exchange, a U.S.-based organisation committed to textile sustainability.

For a responsible consumer used to paying a fair bit for good stuff, a price of just 29 euro (39 dollars) for a 100 percent organically produced pair of jeans arouses suspicion. Is organic really organic?

“All our organic cotton complies with the global OE100 standard set up by Textile Exchange,” explains Philip Chamberlain, head of Sustainable Business Development at C&A. “However, we decided to sell it at the same price as products made of conventional cotton. It’s an investment in our margin.

“We hope to accelerate sales in order to gain the same net result. In recent years, we see the sale of organic cotton products growing much faster than the sale of products made of conventional cotton.”

The company is looking at a tighter grip on the supply chain, not to set a lighter standard. In the past all players, from traders to spinners and manufacturers, included a premium for organic textile, although the additional costs were small for them. Organic cotton was expensive before it arrived in a shop.

“In our supply chain, we succeeded in lowering the total premium for organic cotton products,” says Chamberlain, “which made them far more accessible for the average consumer. In 2011 we sold more than 32 million pieces of 100 percent organic clothing. That’s more than 10 percent of the total amount of cotton we sold.”

In 2011, H&M took first position in the organic cotton market in absolute terms, although they haven’t disclosed how much that is as a share of their total use.

Janet Mensink, cotton expert at Solidaridad, a Dutch NGO working for fair and sustainable supply chains, welcomes the development. “It makes organic cotton much more accessible. The certificate is recognised internationally. In the past, the organic label was often misused, but that has improved a lot.

“However, the most important thing for us is whether the farmer benefits. It takes a lot of time and investment to switch to organic farming. But organic certification doesn’t say anything about his income.”

It’s hard to check whether organic farmers get a fair price, since the supply chain is very complex, says Henrik Lampa, corporate social responsibility manager at H&M in Sweden. “We don’t have direct relationships with farmers. The spinner is the one who buys the cotton. When we place an order, it’s at the garment maker, who in rare cases can be integrated with the spinner.”

Organic cotton is a higher value crop on the market, says Liesl Truscott, farm engagement director at Textile Exchange, the organisation behind the OE100 label. “It’s not guaranteed who receives the reward for the sustainable efforts – the farmers or the middlemen. We’ve seen price squeezing particularly in India where over 70 percent of the world’s organic cotton is grown.”

“However, it’s not just the premium that’s beneficial for the farmers. Organic production requires crop rotation, to make the soil more fertile. This improves food security and increases productivity in the long term, but also biodiversity and water efficiency. Organic soils are much better at retaining moisture, they hold rain water like a sponge.”

Moreover, there is less drinkwater pollution, since farmers use biological alternatives to chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

“Farmers may be vulnerable, but they are no fools. If their investment in organic is not working for them, over time they will not bother with certification if there’s no incentive.”

Most of all cotton farmers need security of business. Textile Exchange encourages its member companies to learn who their producers are and what’s going on at the farms. Some companies, like the Swiss company Remei, a supplier to the Swiss Coop, go as far as supporting farming units in Tanzania and India to make the transition to organic farming.

C&A also wants to take this approach. The company has started working with five farm groups in India connected to later stages in the supply chain. C&A carried out projects to improve education and drip irrigation, which improve the productivity of the farmers.

Together with experts from NGOs and the industry, Textile Exchange will produce a good business guide later this year, with tools for brands to make their supply chains more transparent and responsible.

Mensink is happy with this new trend. “Until now many companies tried to ‘solve’ the issues with simple certification systems, which are top-down models based on the control of farms and suppliers. What we need is suppliers and retailers working together to improve living conditions and to make agriculture more sustainable.”

Solidaridad now cooperates with multinationals like Levi Strauss, Adidas and H&M through the Better Cotton initiative to improve the cotton sector. “The requirements for pesticides are less stringent than for certified organic cotton, and therefore more accessible. We want the farmers to be able to organise themselves. We also look to issues like water managment and decent work, but in a holistic way. We measure progress instead of compliance with a checklist.”

Both C&A and H&M aim to source all cotton in their range from more sustainable sources by 2020.

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