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While many stores are jumping onto the organic wagon, the volume of their commitments can’t touch those of large retailers such as Nike and Wal-Mart. The availability and affordability of organic cotton have some catching up to do before many retailers will be able to make significant commitments. Accounting for less than .1% of the world’s cotton, organic cotton is an expensive commodity. Many retailers have continued to increase commitments, but at relatively small volumes. Given organic cotton’s limited supply, numerous clothing manufacturers are watching the market for a more financially feasible time to make substantial investments. American Apparel, an early adopter and strong advocate for the use of organic crops, produces a mere 5% of organic cotton garments. On the limited supply of organic cotton, Terry Young of the Organic Exchange comments, “If Nike attempted to swap out all traditional cotton for organic, there wouldn’t be enough organic cotton in the world to support the shift.” Bringing education, planning and support to farmers, The Organic Exchange is paving the way to a sustainable, widespread system. Targeting aggressive growth goals, the Organic Exchange is looking to increase organic farmland by 50% each year.
Primarily grown in India and Turkey, US farmers have been slow to convert their traditional cotton crops to organic. After watching fellow farmers prematurely respond to trends in the ‘90s, many farmers remain gun-shy, waiting to react until the longevity for today’s organic cotton demand is substantiated. Additionally, going organic in the US can be a difficult move. In order to certify crops as organic, a three-year farm transition period is required. Prior to recent changes made to the Farm Bill, farmers were required to endure three years of organic cotton production, without changing their prices or advertising their crops as such. The government, hoping to alleviate some of the growing pains associated with going natural, is assisting farmers in making the transition to organic. The reformed Farm Bill allocates a substantial amount of money to organic farming education and allows farmers moving into organic production to advertise crops as transitional—all signs of healthy, long-term growth potential.
Increasing international organic cotton growth will require a new way of structuring relationships and commitments with farmers. Nike currently has contracts with mills abroad, but its commitments don’t reach back to the farms. The mills purchase the cotton crop directly from the farms, spin it, mark it up and sell it to retailers. The considerable mark-up isn’t supporting farmers. Instead, the current system maintains the risk at the farm level, without much of the profit. Retailers can help to support the growth of organic farms by making commitments directly back to landowners. Marks and Spencer, an English retailer, has pioneered a model for healthy sustainable relationships with farms by making a direct commitment to a farm in northern India. A mutually beneficial arrangement, the farm has gained security from a forward contract and Marks and Spencer has been able to secure lower prices for organic cotton in a tight market.
The demand for sustainable, eco-friendly clothing has enjoyed healthy, consistent growth over the last few years. As the US government continues to back domestic cotton producers, retailers activate mutually beneficial relationships with cotton growers and education outreach initiatives successfully reach farmers, the organic cotton industry will only continue to grow. While retailers wait out the market’s adjustment to the supply and pricing of organic cotton, they have started to look into other eco-friendly options as well. Materials such as bamboo and recycled fibers have taken off in smaller, eco-friendly outlets and are just beginning to break into the mainstream market.
Providing a wealth of functionality, bamboo makes for a versatile, natural material. The rapidly renewable resource requires only five years to reach harvest-ready maturity, versus decades for most trees. Bamboo is naturally resistant to pests and therefore requires less attention and resources to cultivate. Bamboo’s state and properties vary greatly. In its most natural form, the dense grass can be used as tough, resilient building material. When broken down into a fiber state, bamboo takes on a more delicate set of characteristics. Woven together, the gentle fibers yield a smooth yarn used to make soft, comfortable fabrics.
The delicate quality of bamboo clothing is often compared to silk or cashmere. Clothing manufactures have started to explore bamboo because of its sustainable nature and inherent softness. Bamboo fabric is known to be breathable, fast drying and odor free. Ranging in versatility from use in denim to camisoles and intimate apparel, bamboo might just be the next wonder fiber. Recently reporting plans to incorporate bamboo into their basketball shoes, Nike will replace foam lining with bamboo on the heel cup of select shoes. American Apparel has also reported experimentation with bamboo fibers and is looking to integrate the material into its lines, broadening the Sustainable Edition even further.
Retailers have started to explore recycling techniques, transitioning worn down garments into new clothing. Both American Apparel and Patagonia have already unveiled recycled products in their inventories and both retailers hope to broaden offerings in the future. Rolling out the Common Threads Recycling Program in 2005, Patagonia invited customers to hand in old Patagonia garments to be recycled into fresh apparel. In the last two years, Patagonia has expanded the program and now invites customers to recycle any article of clothing—regardless of brand, making Patagonia the first company in history to recycle its competitors’ clothing. The new restoration process has allowed Patagonia to curb petroleum use, which has resulted in a 76% energy savings throughout the manufacturing process and a 71% lower CO2 emissions rate. Patagonia president and CEO, Casey Sheahan has said, “We hope to expand the world view of recycling beyond aluminum cans, newspapers and bottles—we’re aiming to make clothing a recyclable resource.” By the fall of 2007, it’s estimated that nearly 1/3 of all apparel sold in the store will be recyclable.
Ready to create a lasting environmental impact, both retailers and consumers are making decisions that are altering the face of the apparel industry. From the increased volume of organic cotton to the use of bamboo fiber and recycled clothing, retailers have continued to meet the demand for sustainable clothing, unveiling new, environmentally sound options everyday. Letting their spending power speak for them, consumers continue to make deep-rooted change, putting eco-fad rumors to rest and providing hope for a more sustainable(and fashionable) future.