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It was difficult for me to keep my mouth shut throughout the 14 months it took to investigate the widespread fraud in the organic sector. But finally, The New York Times article I co-authored with three staffers came out as front-page news, detailing the multiple ways conventional cotton is passed off as organic.
This fraud doesn’t just harm consumers, who care deeply about this topic and many of whom pay more for organic cotton products. According to a recent poll of 2,000 Americans conducted by the bedding company Boll & Branch, clothing is the third most shopped category where being organic is valued, after cleaning products and food, while bedding is the fourth. And in those products, it’s organic cotton that is talked about the most.
But the real harm is done to farmers, who rarely see any of the massive profits being generated by the boom in sustainable fashion made from “certified organic” cotton. A hefty portion of those profits are flowing to auditors, certification companies, and brands.
The plot has thickened since the article went live. Control Union, by far the biggest organic certifying body in India, if not the world, announced it was pulling out of certifying several high-risk crops in India, including cotton, due to all the articles written about the problems there. This confirmed what the whisper network had been saying: You can’t trust organic cotton certificates. Not just from India, but from wherever there is an incentive and means to make a quick buck: Turkey, China, and Eastern Europe employ the same gameable certification system.
One question I got over and over again as the article pinged around the industry and internet was: “If not organic cotton, then what?”
It’s a good question, one I asked myself often as our contributors here at EcoCult tried to dispense advice on what kind of textiles to look for. To answer it, we need to go back to the original purpose of organic cotton. What are we (hoping that we are) paying for when we choose organic cotton?
Well, personally, I hope that it supports a farmer in making the transition to an environmentally friendly and sustainable farming system. I hope the farmer earns enough to justify the lower yield of organic cotton. I hope that the farmer gets the training they need to move away from dangerous synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that degrade the soil.
And there’s a better way to achieve those objectives than paying a little more for a certificate. Brands make change by building a relationship directly with the farmers — getting to know their supply chain all the way back to the field, providing farmers with a premium for their regeneratively grown cotton, supporting non-profits and training programs, and ensuring that it’s the farmers that get the benefits, not a shadowy network of traders.
The term fashion uses for this right now is “traceable cotton.” And this is not a common way of doing things…yet. TextileGenesis, a traceability startup, found that less than 5% of the top 100 global apparel brands can trace their supply chains back to the fiber.
Here’s what I looked for when seeking out brands that go above and beyond:
A conscious brand should know not only the country where the cotton is from, but the state, and district the cotton comes from.
Many brands take so little interest in their cotton sourcing that they couldn’t even tell you what country the cotton in their products was grown in. That’s because they order a shirt from a factory, which orders the cotton from a mill, which orders the cotton through a trader, who doesn’t say where the cotton is from. In one notable case, regular cotton from who-knows-where was been passed off as higher-quality Egyptian cotton.
But in some instances, the brand can even trace the cotton back to the farm. For example, Good Earth Cotton farm in Moree, northern New South Wales, Australia, partnered with the traceability startup FibreTrace to assure brands that what they are selling was grown sustainably, even claiming the cotton is carbon positive.
Sourcing From a Nonprofit or Cooperative
Removing the profit motive can do wonders for a local economy and ecosystem. In a cooperative, farmers are the owners, and band together to negotiate better prices with the brands that buy from them. Nonprofits use their funding to support research and social programs for smallholder farmers, or to provide affordable financing to farmer members. Sourcing from these two types of organizations means a brand is interested in being a true partner to farmers, rather than just having a label.
While not foolproof, layering this certification on top of organic certification means it’s more likely the farmers and workers who process the cotton earn a fair wage. The price premiums brands pay goes into an account that farmers and workers can use however they choose. It’s intended to help close the gap between the actual wages and the living wage for workers.
Third-Party Testing and Checks
Buying organic cotton with one or two organic certificates is not enough. A batch of cotton should have scope certificates and transaction certificates for all stages of production, according to Crispin Argento of the consultancy Sourcery. A brand should also have random pesticide residue and GMO testing done on the cotton as it moves through the supply chain from field to gin to spinner to mill, to ensure it’s the organic cotton the brand paid for.
Some large brands (H&M, Kering, Eileen Fisher, Inditex, C&A, Adidas, Bestseller, Coyuchi, Esprit, G-Star Raw, Kappahl, Patagonia, Superdry) do this through Sourcery or the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA). The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles (PST) and OCA also recently launched an initiative to improve the organic cotton industry. (Whether it was due to the NYT article or simmering for quite some time, I cannot say.)
Brands That Go Beyond Organic Cotton
Here are some of the brands, in alphabetical order, that are moving beyond organic cotton to support cotton farmers — and hence their communities and environment — directly.
(A note on this: I must warn you that even the brands that are doing good work tend to regurgitate some wrong statistics. If you would like to learn more about cotton misinformation, the journalist Elizabeth L. Cline and the cotton expert Marzia Lanfranchi of Cotton Diaries worked with Transformers Foundation to correct the record on cotton’s sustainability stats. Give the report a peek. The information below comes from the brands’ own websites and has not been verified by a third party. It could be outdated or incorrect. If you have corrections, please contact us at [email protected])
The German brand Armedangels sources 100% GOTS-certified organic cotton denim from a manufacturer called Denim Authority in Tunisia. It doesn’t specify where the cotton comes from, but in April 2018, the brand created Armedangels organic farmers association, a partnership with Suminter, an Indian organic cotton supplier. The 500 farmers in the conversion project receive a price premium, GMO-free seeds, training, and support. Armedangels says it has helped convert 1,316 football pitches from conventional to organic cotton so far.
American Blossom sources cotton from the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, which is then shipped to spinning and weaving mills in North and South Carolina, making it 100% USA-made of 100% USA components.
You can view the “provenance journey” of each of Another Tomorrow’s products by clicking through the product page. For example, the organic Supima and long-staple organic cotton for its t-shirts is from three farms in New Mexico and Texas, and is spun into yarn in China.
Alterra Pure purchases fair trade cotton that is GOTS-certified, but says, “We test seeds, fiber, fabric, as well as final product to assure we deliver what we promise for your peace of mind.” The farms it sources from are mostly fair trade-certified co-ops, organized through the NGO Natural Organic Farm in the Odisha region of India.
This bedding company claims to be the number one consumer of Fair Trade, GOTS-certified organic cotton, which is traceable from farm to finish. The cotton it sources comes from family-run cooperatives in Orissa, where GMO cotton is banned and pesticides are not used as a matter of course, and the staple-length (a standard measure of quality) approaches that of Egyptian cotton. From there it goes to Pakistan, Portugal, or the US to be made into Boll & Branch’s products.
This brand sources USDA Certified organic cotton from New Mexico and Texas, plus sustainable non-GMO cotton from the San Joaquin Valley in California.
Much of the cotton in Coyuchi’s bedding is Fair Trade-certified, and Coyuchi partners with Chetna Coalition, a supply chain network that supports sustainable and organic farming communities in India.
Christy Dawn and Oshadi
In April 2021, Christy Dawn launched its first farm-to-closet dresses, a collection made from the cotton harvested from a plot of regeneratively farmed land set aside for the brand by Oshadi, an organic farming collective and brand in Erode, India. Each piece is also colored using natural or organic dyes in neighboring villages.
Last year Christy Dawn launched their second regenerative collection, and expanded it further with a campaign called the Land Stewardship Program. The brand invited customers to pay $200 to cover the cost of regeneratively farming 500 plots of 3,485 square feet each of cotton. When the cotton is harvested later this year, customers will be repaid in store credit, allowing them to purchase a dress made from cotton they invested in. Hopefully, customers will receive more than they put in if the yield is good. And if the yield is bad? Customers will learn firsthand the risks that farmers take on every time they plant a crop.
Eileen Fisher has been vocal about the limitation of certified organic cotton, and has started the process of switching to traceable cotton — it says 16% of its cotton is now traceable — and is starting to source directly from farmers, paying a premium to farmers that are transitioning to organic to support them in their journey. It’s also part of the Organic Cotton Accelerator, a group that works to break down barriers to scaling up organic cotton.
Harvest & Mill works directly with small and independent American organic cotton farmers using regenerative cotton practices. Most Harvest & Mill clothing is made with dye- and bleach-free organic cotton, including heirloom cottons that naturally grow brown, green, and red.
Kotn sources directly from the Better Cotton Initiative and small family-run farms in Egypt. It currently works directly with 2,390 small-holder farmers, “offering guaranteed pricing, subsidies and agricultural consultants to ensure their businesses can flourish.” With each Kotn order, it donates a portion of the proceeds to fund and build primary schools in the Nile Delta and Faiyum, Egypt with its ABCs Project.
Looma sources directly from farming families in the Himalayan basin, paying a markup directly to them. Each of the farms is certified by Fairtrade America. The extra long-staple cotton is cultivated by hand and entirely rain-fed.
This small cotton fashion brand sources from GOTS-certified organic cotton suppliers in Pakistan, which is made into socks in family-owned knitting mills in North Carolina and Alabama. For its apparel, the organic cotton comes from farmer cooperatives in Peru or India, where it is also spun and knit in GOTS-certified facilities.
Organic Basics says it uses GOTS-certified organic cotton “grown on the coast of the Aegean Sea” (Turkey) and says it knows 71% of its raw material suppliers, which includes cotton but also lyocell, nylon, elastane, and other small percentages of other materials.
This by itself doesn’t guarantee much, but Organic Basics is currently working on a pilot project with the World Wildlife Fund to create the first regenerative organic farm in Turkey. After a Black Friday fundraising project in 2021, the team has been testing the soil quality of the farm in the Aydin region of Turkey, and cover crop seeds have been planted ahead of the organic cottonseed planting in April. Time will tell how the project works out, but it indicates that Organic Basics is serious about going deeper to ensure the sustainability of its cotton and that it actually supports farmers and their livelihoods.
Nudie Jeans says that some of the organic cotton is sourced is through the Chetna Coalition, making it also Fair Trade. If you click through to its product pages, it will tell you the suppliers of its cotton and whether Nudie has visited. Looking through, I can see two suppliers in Turkey, plus suppliers (not farmers) in Tunisia, Tajikistan, and India. It also sources recycled cotton made from its own and other cotton garments.
In 2021, Outland Denim achieved 100% traceability of its organic cotton denim. It’s Impact Team, “had been working towards this level of traceability for seven years — since Outland Denim’s earliest days of development.” If you look at some of its product pages, you can click and see where the cotton denim is spun, woven, and manufactured. In its Impact Report, Outland lists all of its suppliers, including its seed supplier and 39 organic cotton farmers, both in Turkey.
In Turkey, there is not much labor regulation at the farm level, and many laborers are vulnerable migrants. So in August 2020, Nudie and Outland announced a program called Sağ Salim, in partnership with Sydney-based Precision Solutions Group (PSG) and the denim supplier Bossa denim. It’s a due diligence program that actively seeks out instances of deliberate exploitation, slavery, and unsafe working conditions, through education and a formal grievance program that passes along reports to appropriate NGO and government bodies. As of August 2020, the brands claim that it had already reached over 581,000 people and has collected reports of “pay discrimination, lack of safe drinking water, and unsafe working conditions due to a lack of personal protective equipment.” They welcomed additional brands sourcing cotton from Turkey into the program, and work has started on expanding the program into India.
Pansy underwear is entirely USA-made, from the organic Texas cotton which is milled in North Carolina, to the natural rubber/cotton elastic from Rhode Island, to the non-toxic dye house in Novato, California, and the sewing factory located about 20 minutes from Pansy’s Oakland studio. Even the thread is organic, and the tags are woven organic cotton twill.
This outdoor brand first partnered with the Organic Cotton Accelerator on a regenerative pilot project in India in 2018, involving 150 farmers. Since then, it’s grown the program to over 1,100 farmers and launched a Regenerative Organic Cotton collection in Spring 2022, promising that not only is the cotton non-GMO and organic, but that it helps “rehabilitate soil, respect animal welfare and improve the lives of farmers” along with reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional cotton. These practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions and could help trap more carbon than conventional agriculture.
In 2017, 42% of People Tree organic cotton was dual certified as Fairtrade Cotton (FLO) and Global Organic Textile Standard Certified Cotton (GOTS). Fairtrade cotton farmers are paid a fair trade minimum price and receive a premium price which they can use to cover production costs and fund community development projects. Cotton which is dual certified organic and Fairtrade is considered the gold standard for sustainable cotton.
Terra Thread, which specializes in bags and accessories made entirely out of organic cotton, and its sister brand Gallant International, an LA-based, B Corp company that makes sustainable merch, have been working with Chetna to transition more than 700 farmers and 3,500 acres of land to regenerative organic cotton. Earlier this year, the land received the Regenerative Organic certification, which makes it one of the largest such certified projects in cotton globally. The organization that bestows that designation, Regenerative Organic Alliance, is a California-based non-profit founded by Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and the Rodale Institute. It looks at soil health, biodiversity, animal welfare, and the social well-being of farmers and farm workers, and encourages regenerative practices such as intercropping, using organic and ideally local inputs, little or no tilling, and crop rotation.
Since Veja’s launch in 2004, the French sneaker brand says it has purchased more than 390 tons of organic and fair trade cotton directly from several producer associations in Brazil and Peru’s coast. A map on the site shows the cotton’s entire journey from the fields to the manufacture of shoe uppers in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and you can download and look at a typical contract and Veja’s list of suppliers.
Veja employs a team of agricultural engineers to support regenerative training for the farmers it sources from. It negotiates a fair price independent of the market fluctuations, paying up to 50% in advance to the farming associations, which allows farming families to avoid debt and plan ahead.