Build Your Business:

The Complex Organic Cotton Issue

October 7, 2014

Editor’s Note: The following is a letter from Garry Bell of Gildan Activewear that was submitted in response to Jimmy Lamb’s article, “How Green is Your Green?” which appeared in the September 2014 issue of Impressions.

I just finished reading “How Green is Your Green?” by Jimmy Lamb and wanted to compliment you on the article. It is well thought out and reveals some of the complexity of this subject, while highlighting that there really are different levels of “green customers.”

In the article, Mr. Lamb suggested that “finding organic fiber is the key.” As one of the largest domestic consumers of all United States cotton (conventionally grown and organic), we have worked extensively with cotton farmers, the National Cotton Council and Cotton Inc. to better understand the true impacts of the variety of fibers we use in our products. By applying our “life cycle perspective” to these collaborations, we have gained awareness of the complex agricultural phase, including chemical applications, land use, soil erosion, water consumption, GHG emissions, nutrient loads and ecosystem biodiversity. After much work, it is clear to us that the cotton discussion remains a complicated one.

Organic farmers and supporters have been very vocal during the past 10 years, while traditional U.S. cotton farmers have been relatively silent in speaking about the tremendous strides they have made in adopting conservation agricultural practices. They have implemented solutions spanning the full spectrum of activities, such as drip irrigation, no-till and low-till soil management, integrated pest controls and sophisticated soil-monitoring systems that limit the application of any specific nutrient to exactly what is required. This restricts any excess nutrients or chemicals from entering neighboring ecosystems. The Field to Market report is a good source of information regarding the improvements that conventional U.S. farmers have made. (Visit for more details.)

During the course of our efforts, we have discovered some misconceptions related to organic-cotton products. One undeniable fact, irrelevant of where you stand on this debate, is that the global supply of organic cotton represents a very small percentage of the overall cotton supply. Total global cotton consumption is estimated at nearly 112 million bales this year while, optimistically, organic cotton represents less than 3.5% of the possible supply. While this percentage is continuously growing, conventionally grown cotton remains the fiber of choice.

Another common belief is that organic fiber, similar to organic food, is somehow safer to wear next to the skin. In all cotton farming, the cotton boll is traditionally closed during chemical applications and the fiber inside remains largely unaffected. The actual fiber, being a cellulose material, retains no residual chemicals. Therefore, if you were to test it once it is harvested, you would not be able to discern between organic cotton and conventionally grown cotton.

The complicated rules related to apparel labeling also contribute to the confusion. Although we have chosen to include only U.S. fiber in our Anvil products, the current U.S. organic crop falls short of meeting the overall domestic requirement. Thus, many brands sell products made from imported organic fiber. As a regulated food crop, most of this cotton fiber is sprayed with a synthetic fumigation agent upon entering the country. The rules of labeling, however, still allow it to be processed into a garment that can be labeled as “organic.”

In 2011, we executed our first Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for a cotton T-shirt. This allowed us to clearly map the complex value chain and footprint — from seed to the end of life — of a T-shirt. During this initial LCA, another misconception was revealed: Although consumers often expect manufacturers to hold the largest responsibility for “making a difference,” we discovered that individuals can greatly reduce the overall environmental impact of their apparel, whether organic or conventional, by simply following the principle of  “wash only when dirty … in cold water … with non-chlorinated detergent … and hang dry.”

As Mr. Lamb’s article indicates, there really are two distinct categories of “Green Customer.” The challenge often is that the salesperson may not know which one he is meeting, so it would always be best have more information available than less. In this process of becoming informed, that same salesperson also may end up learning something that will lead to more personal changes.

Garry Bell is vice president of corporate marketing for Gildan Activewear.