Consumer concern over environmental destruction has turned organic cotton into a hot commodity for top textile brands from Nike to Levi Strauss."There's a paradigm shift in the textile sector," said John Mowbray, editor of the magazine Ecotextile.
"Three years ago sustainability was not on the agenda," Mowbray said. "Now a lot of retailers and brands want to move regardless of what their suppliers think. They think consumers want transparency. Brands are driving change."
In 2009, with a global recession producing a 7 percent decrease in the global apparel and textiles market, sales of organic products increased 35 percent. This is consistent with the average 40 percent yearly growth in the organic cotton apparel and home textiles market since 2001. "We weren't affected by the crisis," said H.L. Ding of the Chinese natural fiber company Hemp Fortex.
"We're a small part of a market that's still growing." Organic cotton production increased 20 percent in 2009, and is expected to grow another 20 to 40 percent through 2011. Organic products are now offered by big brands Nike, H&M, Adidas, C&A and Levi Strauss, and are sold at discount stores such as Wal-Mart in the United States and Tesco in the United Kingdom.
The corporate embrace of organic cotton may signal a major shift in the industry. "Big companies always tread very carefully, but once they feel it's right for the market, it can be really big," Ding said. "They are taking serious steps."Not everyone is impressed by the textile and apparel industry's green rhetoric, however.
"Sure, they are buying organic cotton, but at what price, and how is it made?" said Isabel Quehe of the Ethical Fashion Show. "Consumers need to think about where their clothes come from, whether the person who made them was paid a living wage."Designer Christan Tournafol agreed. "I saw an organic T-shirt selling for 2.90 euros [$4.00] -- at that kind of price you can only be producing it in terrible conditions," he said.