Tuesday, 24 December 2013

ALL ABOUT COTTON PART II: Exploring sustainable and ethical options



We’ve already talked a bit about the environmental and social challenges associated to cotton production and also the long and complicated production process from cultivation to cloth. What initiatives are currently being undertaken to produce cotton in a more ethical or sustainable way?

Fairtrade and organic fabrics are probably the most well-known options for the end consumer.
  • Organic cotton traditionally attempts to address the environmental ramifications by strictly regulating things such as water use and prohibiting the use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds.
  • Fair trade cotton traditionally attempts to address the social ramifications and aims to provide a fair price to farmers and imposing strict regulations on labour, including child labour conditions.

However, there is often cross over between these two as obviously companies who have an interest in social issues also generally have a concern for environmental issues and vice versa.


What requirements need to be met in order for fabric to be labelled as organic or Fairtrade cotton? How much do these regulations differ from country to country? 

For organic, there is more than just one standard, some standards operate at the national or regional level, others such as the Global Organic Textile Standard operate at the international level. For Fairtrade, the standard is set by the Fair Labelling Organisation

Each supplier that wishes to be certified against a standard needs to follow the practices prescribed by this standard, before getting certified by a so called Certification Body and being able to use the standard’s label. To ensure the credibility of the certification, the Certification Bodies need to be independent from the standard setting organisation. For example FLO Cert is the independent international certification agency for Fairtrade production processes and products. Other standards accredit Certification Bodies allowed to certify producers and suppliers against their standard. 

One of the major challenges to produce  organic or Fairtrade finished products is that the production process from cultivation of cotton to fabric is so long, complicated and often detached between each step. Cotton grown on a farm will be transported to a ginnery where it is generally stored and processed with cotton from other farms, spinning then uses cotton from different bales and origins to produce yarn and so forth, At each step in the supply chain cotton is mixed with cotton from other origins and qualities. But to produce organic or Fairtrade garments, you need to be able to trace the cotton that was certified in the first place. To do this, standards use chain of custody systems to track certified materials. Most standard organisations will use one of these three chain of custody systems:
  •  Physical segregation: where certified materials are physically segregated at every step of the production process. This is the only system which allows the final cotton product to be traced back to a certified sustainable source and guarantees that the organic or fair-trade T-shirt you are buying is actually made of 100% organic or fair-trade cotton. However, such a system places a heavy burden (and additional costs) on each party involved in each step of the value chain, making it very difficult to implement as long as organic or fair-trade cotton comprise of such a small share of the overall cotton produced.
  • Mass Balance: where the amount of certified cotton sourced and then sold by each party is tracked and must be equal at the each step of the supply chain. However,  the actual organic or fair-trade product do not necessarily need to be sold together with the certificate, all what is required is that the total volume of certified cotton in equals the total volume of certified cotton out for each supply chain actor. This chain of custody system doesn’t allow a brand or retailer to market a piece of garment, e.g. a Tshirt, as an organic or Fairtrade Tshirt. The retailer may claim on their products that they support the production of certified cotton. This enables brands and retailers to say how much certified cotton has been used overall in their products.
  • Book and claim: where retailers can buy claims for certified cotton. Certified cotton is produced according to the standard but it then flows freely through the supply chain, just as conventional cotton does with no specific link or need to eventually end up at the retailer who purchased the claim.  This chain of custody system doesn’t allow a brand or retailer to market a piece of garment, e.g. a Tshirt, as an organic or Fairtrade Tshirt. The retailer may claim that they support the production of certified cotton.

Each standard will have their own rules to ensure that retailers and brands make truthful claims, based on the chain of custody that is implemented. When you buy a piece of garment, you tneed to be attentive to what the label exactly says: that the Tshirt is made of 100% organic/Fairtrade cotton, that it contains some organic/Fairtrade cotton, that it support producers of /Fairtrade cotton, etc.

Is there any way for consumers to tell or test if cotton is organic vs. non organic? 

The label that you find on products follows some rules as explained before, so you can tell from the label. As for ‘testing’ scientifically, it’s probably not possible to differentiate an organic cotton Tshirt from a non-organic one because cotton is so heavily processed until you end up with the Tshirt that there is probably not a trace of say pesticide left at the end. .

The cotton supply chain described above contains five different steps before it reaches the retailer. For small tailors or projects like us – we don’t get our cotton fabric from the finisher, but instead need to go to the market to buy fabric. At the same time, many of these sustainable cotton initiatives focus on the global mass market rather than small scale change. What can a small clothing project or company like us do in trying to source more ethically produced and sustainable cotton?

It’s indeed difficult to source sustainable materials when you’re small – not that it is easy when you’re big! My suggestion is to ask people or companies who are already doing this type of thing. One example in Vietnam is a small Vietnamese clothing company called Metiseko which uses organic fabrics. Speak to the people behind these store or companies to find out where they source their organic fabrics from and see if you could access a similar source.  


Thanks so much Isabelle for sharing all this information. Next on my to-do list for me is to hunt down the people behind Metisseko. While writing up this post in Tet Decor cafe, I started yapping my boyfriend’s ear off about everything cotton related. He pointed out that sitting behind me was a framed photo of a cotton field. After some investigation, I found out that the photo was taken from a cotton field near Luang Prabang in Laos where an organisation called Kopnoi works with local artisans, villages and non-profit producers to grow cotton and produce fabrics and clothing in Laos. Another addition to my to-do list!

All photos are kindly thanks to Isabelle. 

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