By Barbara Kessler
Organic cotton clothing used to come in a variety of styles: There were men’s t-shirts, women’s t-shirts, teen t’s and also, well… a few more t-shirts.
Fueled by increasing demand for greener products, new clothing companies are actively testing the urban market for organic wear with items like Boll Organic’s classic cotton shirt.
Made of 100 percent U.S. organic cotton and sold for a competitive $60 in button-down or spread collars on the company’s website, Boll Organic, the Boll shirt is both a classic and a newbie on the fashion front.
This white dress shirt seemed a good place to break into the market, according to the brothers who started Boll Organic, because they couldn’t find a standard white dress shirt made of organic cotton anywhere.
Even though a few companies, such Patagonia had been selling organic cotton clothing for several years. They did not make dress or office wear.
What’s neat about the enterprise by Kent and Kevin Russell – other than their crisp shirts – is that they seem genuinely concerned about the environment and about keeping prices competitive with regular shirts. They also aren’t employing scare tactics. They don’t pretend that they’re saving you from actual skirt-to-skin pesticide exposure with their cotton. Their website explains that even the conventional cotton clothing you wear has likely had the pesticides all washed away.
But here’s the thing: We all own pesticides in one way or another. They turn up in water runoff and in the food supply (did you know that cattle are fed cottonseed that’s been grown with pesticides?) and as byproducts in the manufacturing process.
What’s more, cotton farming is considered to be among the most, if not the most, pesticide-reliant crop grown in the United States. It is commonly accepted that it takes about 1/3 of a pound of pesticides to grow one pound of cotton.
So when you buy organic, you are helping curb pesticide use and you’re supporting farmers who are switching to organic farming. Farmers like James Wedel of Muleshoe, Texas.
Wedel is president of the nation’s biggest cooperative of organic cotton farmers. Those farmers happen to be concentrated on Texas’ high plains because it is relatively easier to grow cotton organically in that drier climate.
Which isn’t to say it is easy to grow organic cotton. In fact, it is a mentally taxing and a weedy business that must be managed carefully, according to Wedel. But in recent years, as the demand for organic cotton has expanded, it has become a profitable enterprise.
In the past three years, demand has outstripped supply, and that’s been a big switch since Wedel got into organic farming in the 1990s.
The market is still small compared to the conventional cotton market, but now “we sell all of it,” says Wedel, who gradually put all of his fields — corn, wheat and other crops — into organic production in the 1990s. He had the support of his dad, who had farmed before the big chemicals changed agricultural techniques in the 1950s.
“Am I leaving the land in better shape? Definitely,” Wedel said. But there are also pragmatic reasons for farming organically: “The chemicals don’t always work.”
The techniques he uses now, weeding the fields by machine and by hand, fertilizing with natural compost and rotating crops aren’t failproof. But they are working pretty well. He sells all the crops he grows, and he gets a premium price for the organic cotton, which helps offset the greater labor costs.
More farmers would be jumping into organic cotton farming, but not every climate is suited for it. Insect “pressure” is very high in the wetter Deep South cotton regions. And even on the high plains, farmers can only certify fields as organic after they’ve been chemical-free for three years.
But consumers are driving demand for organic cotton. Wedel believes it started in the grocery store, where customers are increasingly asking for organic produce and from there they begin thinking about other products they use, like fabrics.
Organic cotton has also been partly sustained by America’s growing use of organic milk. Dairy cows who are certified to produce organic milk cannot be fed with pesticide-contaminated food and that has created a market for organic cottonseed, which is an enriching, natural food for those cows.
Ironically, cottonseed used in foods for human consumption, such as cottonseed oil, typically comes from conventionally grown cotton.
Now that’s a topic for another day.
If you’re looking for organic clothing with some new design touches, check out:
Maggie’s Organic Cotton Criss-Cross Shirt at Hemp Clothiers, a joint venture by a U.S. company and Nicaraguan women.
Oh and by the way, The Gap, is also getting into the organic cotton act — with t-shirts. I guess we still need those.