Organic cotton is grown in agricultural systems that work with nature, rather than against it. The organic way of farming combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the environment, promoting fair relationships and improved quality of life for all. Organic farming systems have the potential to sustain and promote the health of soils, ecosystems, and people by relying on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles that are adapted to local conditions, rather than using external inputs that could have adverse effects. With long-term investment from the marketplace, organic cotton can bring immense benefits to the fashion and textile industry–as well as our planet. This way of farming favors placebased practices over external inputs, helping to safeguard the health of people and the land. By prioritizing long-term resilience over short-term yields, organic practices can help us to ensure a sustainable future for every stakeholder in this global supply chain, from farmers to suppliers and brands.
What are the challenges faced by farmers, and what can brands do to help?
The industry is becoming more aware of the challenges and of what needs to be done to address them. Despite the growing market, it’s not always easy for farmers to switch to organic practices. Cotton is a cash crop, and farmers’ livelihoods depend on the yields that they produce. While organic farming systems bring longterm benefits, the conversion period–often three years–is a huge burden for farmers to bear alone, and the rules of organic agriculture may feel restrictive without viable alternatives to conventional inputs. Problems start as early as the planting season. GM seeds have a market monopoly in some countries, but they are not accepted in organic systems. To move forwards, further research, farmer training, and improved access to seed will be essential. It’s about finding new ways to build soil health and manage weeds and insects, such as crop rotation, residue management, green manures and compost, and biological inputs.
Organic cotton programs and initiatives must also lead a mindset shift away from one-size-fits-all solutions in favor of methods based on the local and regional contexts. Even then, farmers may see lower yields as they build back the soil and learn new practices. With high certification costs to pay, too, they need strong market signals to make sure converting to organic is worth the investment. Best practices for organic farming mean learning from the land. The risks and rewards of this journey should be shared in full financial partnership with farmers, and longterm commitments should be made from the start.
For brands, this translates to fair pricing that takes these challenges into account and incentivizes growers to make the switch, while ensuring that price differentials reach the farmer. In a climate increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather, commitments might also include crop insurance to protect against losses from natural causes. On the social side, organic cotton buyers must invest in traceability and due diligence to the farm level, this contributes to eliminating forced and child labor and health and safety risks to workers. Beyond action from companies, government incentives will be essential to promote organic agriculture. This can help with volatile and uncertain cotton prices and trade restrictions, as well as improving access to organic inputs. In short, it’s about moving away from seeing organic cotton simply as a commodity and recognizing that it’s the result of ongoing collaboration, collective action, and commitment.
What are organic standards and why do we have them?
Unlike terms such as “natural” or “sustainable”, the core principles of organic farming are legally controlled. Criteria for farmers who want to certify their cotton as organic is set by their respective governing authorities. Many organic farmers go above and beyond this baseline. But, at the very least, every farmer selling their crops as organic must meet a set of strict rules that include requirements around soil health and the prohibition of artificial fertilizers, hazardous synthetic pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Once the cotton leaves the farm, it isn’t automatically covered by the same legal protections. However, private standard-setting organizations have developed voluntary standards that manage the chain of custody of the organic cotton from gin to the finished product. The most common of these finished product standards are Textile Exchange’s Organic Content Standard (OCS) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Both standards accept organic cotton inputs from farms certified to organic standards recognized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM - Organics International). These include the regulations in primary cotton-producing countries like India.
What can companies do to protect integrity in the organic cotton sector?
Everyone along the organic cotton supply chain has a role to play in protecting the integrity of the industry and ensuring that governance and certification programs are working as intended. With organic cotton in high demand, it’s more important than ever to strengthen the systems, processes, and controls we have in place. Increasing the supply of organic cotton available can help to reduce pressure on the market. This can be done by sourcing and supporting in-conversion cotton, which comes from farmers that are in the two-to-three-year process of transitioning their land to organic. It can also be done by entering into long-term contracts with organic or in-conversion farmers, with fair pricing, to reduce uncertainty about future demand and prices. Understanding where your cotton comes from and improving how the risks and rewards of transitioning to organic farming are shared across the supply network are some of the best things that brands can do. Building strong foundations from the soil up is the key to ensuring resilience and integrity in a growing market. Efforts can then focus on programs to mitigate and prevent fraud further down the supply chain. This includes science-based physical and forensic verification of the fiber, in addition to site and transaction verification using tracer technologies.
https://textileexchange.org/ Organic Cotton Marketing Report 2022