All you need to know about cotton, part 2: the current cotton market

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We have learned that conventional industrial agriculture can produce many issues and have several negative repercussions. The promise of organic seems to be particularly interesting to reduce the impact of growing cotton on the planet, but the transition is not easy for many farmers. In this second chapter of our cotton series, we will see what is going on in the current cotton market.

What does preferred cotton mean?

Preferred cotton alternatives, i.e., the ones having an improved social and environmental impact according to the Textile Exchange, are still the most popular, accounting for 30% of the total market in 2020. Yet, organic cotton production lingers now at approximately 1% of the total supply.

Preferred cotton alternatives include regenerative, BCI (Better Cotton), organic, and organic in transition. As shared by the Textile Exchange, recycled cotton makes up 0,96% of the market.

Regenerative cotton

Regenerative cotton aims to restore soil health and biodiversity using specific techniques such as reduced or no-tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, and reduced or no chemical additives. The availability of regenerative cotton is currently limited, and there is no universal and shared definition of regenerative agriculture. Still, the many benefits linked to its way of working with nature and for environmental integrity have garnered much interest from the fashion industry.

Better Cotton

Better Cotton mainly focuses on training smallholder farmers to use more sustainable practices. It is currently grown in 23 countries and accounts for 22% of the world’s cotton supply. This cotton is widely available and easy to farm, but some issues could concern the mass balance system, no chain of custody guarantees, and accusations of little oversight back to the farm level.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton improves soil health, eliminates hazardous chemicals, and respects human rights along the whole value chain. It is currently grown in 7 countries and must be GMO-free (Genetically Modified Organism). Organic cotton aims to work with nature and get rid of toxic substances, but it does not necessarily avoid other harmful agricultural practices such as tillage and the certification process is viewed by some as burdensome and overly complex.

Organic in transition

Organic in transition identifies those conventional farms which are going through a three-year evolution towards organic practices. Being marked as organic in transition gives growers the economic support, to help ease some of the risks associated with making this change.

Recycled cotton

Recycled cotton avoids sourcing virgin raw materials and hence optimizes the original resources used and reduces waste. There are two varieties of recycled fibers: pre- and post-consumer. The first is made of leftover material from production processes, while the second comes from old garments. Recycling methods can then be mechanical or chemical. The first is the most common in the industry and involves shredding textile waste and garnetting it into new fibers, while the second breaks down textile waste with chemicals and solvents and creates an artificial cellulosic yarn, such as viscose.

How can we verify cotton claims?

Certifications are a tool to verify cotton claims, but sometimes they fail due to a lack of oversight and the complexity of the value chain. Some scandals involve false certifications of organic cotton. Sometimes, crops are just unwittingly contaminated by pesticides and GMOs, but other times the fraudulent claims are intentional. The trouble is that it is challenging to determine which situation is which, and when significant frauds are discovered, trust in the transparency of the cotton supply chain takes a big hit.

The most egregious example was revealed in India. There, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) identified “substantial documentary evidence” that systematic fraud of the Indian government certification system had taken place. At least 20,000 metric tons of cotton were falsely certified as organic, 16% of the Indian production. According to the Textile Exchange 2021 report, the Asian country is the world’s biggest organic cotton grower, producing approximately 51% of the global supply. Despite this misstep, India remains then pivotal in growing organic cotton.

Cotton has always been treated as a commodity, so farmers and all the others in the supply chain have never cared about tracing its travel from field to gin and, eventually, consumers, but everything is changing. Brands and retailers are more and more focused on sustainability and want to provide their customers with an increased level of transparency. The risk to mills purchasing potentially fraudulently certified organic cotton is then huge.

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