Organic Cotton, India & Veracity

Harvested organic cotton at a bioRe facility in Kasrawad, India. India is the single largest producer of the world’s organic cotton, responsible for half of the supply. Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

When I see a headline like That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think my first reaction is a reflexive wince.

I will read the article for sure, as I did in this case, but even before reading it I feel defensive.

I am deeply committed to organic certification and seven years living in India makes this subheading into a red flag in terms of my sharing it with others:

The organic cotton movement in India appears to be booming, but much of this growth is fake, say those who source, process and grow the cotton.

Not because it is hard to believe. Exactly the opposite. I had work experiences that this story echoed in a different context. But when I share articles I value each day, usually on an environmental topic, a large percentage of those who click and read are from India. That is likely because we started this platform 10+ years ago while based in India. I do not enjoy, even if I am confident of its veracity, sharing news that I know will make those visitors, not to mention my many friends in India, uncomfortable.

Farmers set up their load of cotton at the Khargone mandi, a large auction market. Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

But I got over it. Each of the journalists who authored this story put something on the line to get these important facts about two topics I care about. So, please read on and visit the source so the authors and photographer are properly credited for their excellent work:

Michael Kors retails its organic cotton and recycled polyester women’s zip-up hoodies for $25 more than its conventional cotton hoodies. Urban Outfitters sells organic sweatpants that are priced $46 more than an equivalent pair of conventional cotton sweatpants. And Tommy Hilfiger’s men’s organic cotton slim-fit T-shirt is $3 more than its conventional counterpart.

“This product contains independently certified organic cotton grown without chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds,” the product description reads.

With the fashion industry trumpeting its sustainability commitments, those labels are both a means of value signaling and a lure to consumers willing to pay more to act better.

There’s only one problem: Much of the “organic cotton” that makes it to store shelves may not actually be organic at all.

The largest single producer of the world’s organic cotton supply is India, which accounts for half of the organic cotton sold globally, and where the organic cotton movement appears to be booming. According to Textile Exchange, a leading organic proponent, organic cotton production in India alone grew 48 percent in the last year, despite the pandemic.

However, much of this growth is fake, say Indians who source, process and grow organic cotton.

At the heart of the problem is an opaque certification system rife with opportunities for fraud. Consumers are assured of “organic” material by brands, which rely on official stamps of approval from external organizations. Those in turn rely on reports from opaque local inspection agencies that base their conclusions on a single planned yearly inspection (in the case of the facilities) or a few random visits (for farms).

In recent months, the credibility of these inspection agencies has been destroyed. In November, the European Union voted to no longer accept Indian organic exports certified by the main companies responsible for organic cotton: Control Union, EcoCert and OneCert. And in January, the international agency that provides accreditation to organic inspection agencies, IOAS, withdrew OneCert’s ability to inspect and certify cotton processors for these labels…

Read the whole story here.

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