Cleaner Cotton


Designer/educator Lynda Grose talks about Cleaner Cotton TM, and improving the fashion landscape

Over the last few decades, designers have come to see that the enormous global “fashion machine” drastically subjugates Nature in the name of producing more and more ‘things’ to satisfy human wants.  The primary vehicle for this new fashion industry insight has been a deep examination of cotton cultivation.  From the sheer volume of chemicals used and water diverted, to the complete eradication of insects and weeds with a natural place in the biosphere of growing areas, and the manipulation of life itself through genetically modified seeds, cotton lays bare the scale, speed, and short-term thinking of our industry — and the cultural mindset that feeds all three factors.

The exclusive focus of the agricultural and textile industries on yielding more and more fiber from every acre of land has a doubly detrimental effect on farmers: it both depletes the nutritional value of the soil, necessitating the use of synthetic inputs and raising operational costs, and simultaneously swells national fiber stocks — which drives commodity prices down.  This ‘double edged sword’ traps the farmer in a cruel cycle, compelling him/her to yield ever more fiber to meet increasing financial obligations and to continually push cultivated land beyond ecologically sustainable threshholds.

Most fashion designers see organic cotton as the main means for farmers to step off both the pesticide and the economic treadmills.  Working within the natural ecology of the field, organic farmers respect insect food chains by making use of beneficial predator insects, alongside additional biological controls, to manage pests and pathogens.  And the niche organic market better ensures a price premium for the fiber, which helps to stabilize farm finances and to generate discretionary money to invest in more sound (and usually more expensive) ecological practices.

The spotlight on organic products has encouraged designers to connect their fabric choices and purchases to land cultivation and rural economies, yet it has done little to build a widely held understanding of regional ecological impacts or to encourage strategies that are appropriate to place, time and circumstances. In order to see large-scale environmental and economic improvement, producers, designers, manufacturers, and consumers alike must see and value the benefits of forward-motion in cotton production.

Cotton is produced in approximately 90 countries worldwide each with its own regional eco system, available natural resources, capacities and limits, and each with its particular cotton cultivation practices. In Uzbekistan, for example, water from rivers flowing into the Aral Sea has been diverted for cotton irrigation; the unintended consequence of developing a major cotton industry in a dry region has been massive desertification, with devastating social and ecological consequences.  Meanwhile, Cotton grown in West Africa and Texas is largely rain fed.  Organic is a solution to chemical use in cotton, but does not address other ecological indices like water use – or labor or energy.  Farming systems also vary from region to region – in third world countries labor is cheap and plentiful and has to be strictly monitored to prevent child labor, whilst in developed nations, labor costs are high and farming systems largely rely on machines for planting, maintenance and harvesting.

Like any industry, cotton relies on market forces to provide incentives for converting cotton fields to more sustainable practices.  If the market demand is evident, supply will move to meet it.  Building the capacity for consumers to do more than simply consume is therefore imperative. Both designers and consumers must become well-educated, informed and active participants in nuanced solutions to real challenges.  Yet the standard industry approach for marketing ‘sustainable fashion’ assumes a consumer who has very little technical knowledge, so information on cotton tends to be oversimplified, resulting in narrow definitions, and eroding our capacity to comprehend the complex realities in the field.  The case study of Californian cotton illustrates the point.

The Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP), a non-profit organization helping to reduce the toxicity of cotton cultivation, has been working with conventional farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley for over a decade.  Providing technical help, field scouts and mentor farmers, SCP supports growers to switch from chemical intensive to biological farming systems.

SCP’s original vehicle for converting cotton areas and farmers to biological systems was organic.  Through its annual farm tour, held at the height of cotton harvest in October, and presentations at company headquarters, SCP introduced apparel company executives to farmers who were changing their practices.  Over the years, SCP has influenced scores of companies to consider organic cotton, including Patagonia, Nike, Esprit, Marks and Spencer, IKEA, Hanna Andersson, Eileen Fisher, Levi, American Apparel, and PraNa, to name just a few.

Organic cotton has recently enjoyed a lot of publicity.  With many dozens of brands and retailers, large and small, selling organic cotton products, the organic sector grew from $240M in 2001 to $3.2B in 2008.  But despite the widely publicized use of organic and and an increased number of participating brands, worldwide organic cotton production represents just 2% of global cotton production.  And here in US, organic cotton acreage peaked at 25,000 acres in 1995 and has fallen ever since. In California in 2009 there were just 2 organic cotton farmers on barely a couple hundred acres of land.  The reason for such small acreage is that growing costs in California are higher than retailers are willing or able to pay. In fact much of the organic cotton found in the market is sourced overseas in nations such as India and Turkey, where the extra hand labor required is much cheaper than in US.

In the meantime, pesticide use on California cotton totals nearly 3 milion pounds annually (2008) and the approximate number of pounds of chemicals used per acre of cotton remains close to what it was in 1993.  Furthermore, Genetically modified seed in California now represents over 70% of the total crop.  Clearly, organic cotton has been a very limited tool for reducing toxicity and increasing the adoption of biological systems in California.

Converting a conventional cotton grower to biological farming systems is like asking a practitioner of Western medicine to switch to Chinese medicine and acupuncture.  It’s a fundamentally different mind set, and takes time to cultivate.  And in California, organic cotton generally yields 40% less fiber than conventionally grown cotton, so without a secure market, farmers are unwilling to take the risk.

Despite the decline in organic cotton acres in California, SCP has continued to recruit a steady number of farmers into its program.  In 2009 the SCP group was comprised of eight farmers on 650 acres of land, six times the size of the organic acres in the state.  Furthermore, these same growers farm as much as 20,000 additional acres of cotton, making the potential for scalability a reality.

Farmers in the SCP program learn to work with techniques used in organic farming.  Monitoring pest populations, using natural predators to combat problem pests, and interplanting with alfalfa to draw problem pests off the fields are just a few of the many tactics employed.  SCP also prohibits the use of the most toxic cotton chemicals on enrolled fields. The list is based on Pesticide Action Network’s ‘Bad Actor’ category, potential for groundwater contamination, volume of use and available alternatives. (the targeted group of chemicals includes: chlorpyprifos, aldicarb, trifluralin, prometryn, dicofol, propargite, profenofos, carbofuran, diazinon, endosulfan, metam sodium, dibrom, oxamyl, phorate, and paraquat dichloride).  SCP also requires growers to plant non-GM seed.  Growers must also enroll in the program before planting, and team up with other growers to field-test the effectiveness of the program.

Grower’s pesticide use is tracked to ensure that the targeted chemicals have not been used on the enrolled fields. This pesticide use tracking is not difficult in California, since farmers are required by
state law to report their annual chemical use for all crops and this data is made publicly available by the California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Pesticide Regulation. SCP uses this data to compare chemical use of growers enrolled in the Cleaner Cotton TM program to other growers in the state.

All in all, Cleaner cotton brings the farmers back into the field, thoroughly engages them in managing biological systems, and may provide a stepping-stone to organic as market support builds or when legislation helps shape the market through incentives. And since it represents less risk of both reduced yields and therefore increased costs to the farmer Cleaner Cotton is more scalable, converting more farmers and more acres faster than organic can at this time in the state.

Bringing this new type of cotton to a market that perceives organic as the pinnacle of sustainability is a challenge.  Anything other than organic is considered a compromise.  But since SCPs program is based on actual work in the field, and is transparent and measurable, SCP has been able to convince a core group of companies to include the program in their corporate cotton strategies. ‘Stakeholder dialogues’ including companies, the supply chain and farmers are now fostering collaboration to secure an advanced market for the fiber.  These advanced commitments to fiber represent a radical departure from business as usual in the fashion industry where order-to-market demands for commodities like cotton products can be a short as 2 weeks.  SCP’s cotton will come to market as Cleaner Cotton TM.

Currently the ‘sustainable’ fashion industry and market view organic cotton as the pinnacle of sustainability. At 2% of global cotton production, this perception creates a bottleneck in the market and restricts incentives for farmers to convert acreage to biological systems.  Though organic is a tool that can be used very effectively in third world countries where hand labor is inexpensive, additional tools like Cleaner Cotton TM are more scalable more quickly and amplify the ecological benefits of the smaller scale niche organic category.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that both organic and Cleaner Cotton are making is in forging new partnerships through the supply chain, fostering collaborative approaches for bridging ecological issues in production to the consumer and engaging all sectors of the industry to work together to build new markets and infrastructure.  It is this shift in cultural practices in the field, and throughout the supply chain, where the future of sustainability in fashion lies.

The additional step of creating public awareness and a sense of value around the concept of “cleaner cotton” is the next step – and will have to be taken by the growing industry as well as visionary designers and retailers. Simple marketing of eco-fashion fails to reveal the complexities of real change in the industry and perpetuates the old system of simply selling and buying products.  Only by educating ourselves and the consumer, can purchases prompt real change.

Author Lynda Grose has practiced ‘sustainable’ fashion since 1990 when she co founded Esprit’s ecollection.  She has been teaching sustainable fashion at California College of the Arts for 11 years.