Organic Cotton... Growing Market, Despite Major Obstacles

Cotton is the most widely used fiber in the world today, comprising 40 percent of all fiber production.

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Twenty-five million tons are grown each year in 35 countries on five continents. There are five prominent types of cotton produced today: Egyptian, Sea Island, American Pima, Asiatic and Upland. The fiber develops in closed, green capsules known as bolls that burst open when ripe, revealing the soft white fibers that are so desirable and useful in textiles manufacturing. Cotton is extremely important as a crop of international trade.

Natural—But Not Environmentally-Friendly

Because cotton is such a valuable money crop, the focus has been on finding ways to grow cotton less expensively—but those methods have not always been good for our planet. Cotton is attacked by boll weevils, bollworms and other crop damaging pests, so farmers have become increasingly dependent on chemicals, using pesticides as well as genetic engineering of seeds to help improve their yields.
Now that consumers are becoming more aware of how their foods and textiles are produced, they are looking more closely at ORGANIC cotton as a way to improve the environmental footprint of this crop, but converting major producers like China (36 million bales) and India (25 million bales) is no small task—for many reasons!

The Organic Push

While it might seem like producers would be jumping at the chance to corner the demand for organic cotton, annual worldwide production is now only about one million bales, with Turkey being the number one producer and the U.S. following closely behind.
While the number of organic bales produced is growing, organic cotton is still only about one percent of total world production of cotton fiber, with growing costs being the point of resistance. Results from a six-year study in the San Joaquin Valley of California showed organic cotton production costs running approximately 50% higher than those of conventional cotton. Almost every facet of crop production involved in organic farming is more expensive than conventional methods.

Organic farming does not mean simply replacing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with natural ones. The list of requirements for organic certification (as outlined by US Department of Agriculture National Organic Program) also includes:

Seed Preparation: Organic cotton begins with seeds that are not genetically modified. The seeds are also free from pesticides and fungicides.

Soil and Water: Crop rotation is used to help build healthy soil and to reduce water use.

Weed Control: In organic farming, weeds are controlled by manual weeding.

Pest Control: Insects are controlled by the introduction of predator insects and by the use of trap crops that lure insects away from the cotton plants.

Harvesting: In organic farming, seasonal freeze or water management is used to defoliate cotton plants.

Manufacturing: For fabric to be certified organic, the mill equipment must be cleaned of residues from conventional cotton before it can be used to weave organic fabric. Most mills are reluctant to shut down production to clean their machinery for relatively small runs of organic cotton.

Despite significantly higher production costs, organic cotton does not currently enjoy a comparable premium when farmers are ready to sell their crop. Much of this is likely due to the fact that, unlike organic foods, organic textiles are far more limited in their production and distribution and while organic cotton sounds like a planet-friendly idea, designers and consumers often have difficulty making workable choices from the very limited color and pattern selections being offered by the major fabric houses.

Organic cottons are being added to certain collections and some smaller fabric houses are now catering to this new market demand.

Because of all the reasons listed, organic cotton is still more widely used in the making of clothing rather than in home furnishings.

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