Dear Dot: Is some organic cotton a scam?



Dear Dot,
I recently read an article exposing some of the organic cotton market as fraudulent. I want to do the right thing but I don’t want to support the bad guys. What should I look for to guarantee I’m buying organic?

—Kelly, Vineyard Haven

Dear Kelly,

It seems a safe assumption that you’re referring to the story, published in February of this year by the New York Times under the headline, “That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think.” The story was jarring, noting that there simply isn’t enough organic cotton being grown to sync with the amount of clothing that boasts the label. And speaking of labels, the New York Times’ investigation revealed that labeling, even some of the third-party certifications long relied upon to assure consumers that what they’re buying is, indeed, what’s on the label, is collapsing under scrutiny. 

Fashion remains an industry besieged by poor labor practices, wild overproduction (and therefore disposal), toxic fabric and dyeing processes, and manufacturing that is producing poorer quality items that simply don’t hold up to time and wear. 

Those of us who enjoy fashion but want to do right by avoiding the “bad guys,” as you put it, Kelly, are increasingly stymied by an industry cavalier with its commitments. 

Even highly respected companies, such as Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have been swept up in this cotton kerfuffle. Eileen Fisher took the step of utter transparency about its frustrations with the organic cotton industry, noting on its site that while just 1% of cotton in the world is grown organically, just 16% of that 1% can be confirmed organic. The rest? Well…

What’s more, much of what we have been told about organic cotton is being debunked or, at the least, challenged. For instance, we have long been told that organic cotton uses 91% less water than conventional cotton, relying on rain rather than irrigation. But a summary reported in the industry magazine Apparel Insider noted that climate — where the cotton was grown, not how — impacted water use. According to Transformers Foundation in its report Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation, “Climate, rainfall, and irrigation technology vary greatly from one country to another, and often from region to region, and even field to field.” Put another way, there are far too many variables to rely on broad stroke statistics. That said, Textile Exchange, which commissioned the 2014 Life Cycle Analysis, stands by its findings, stands by its findings, particularly its figure that organic cotton uses 91% less groundwater and surface water (which doesn’t include rainwater).

According to Damien Sanfilippo, Senior Programmes Director of Better Cotton Initiative, as cited in the Transformers Foundation report, “What creates change is brands and retailers identifying their supply chain, the origin of their product, identifying what are the sustainability hotspots, helping to invest in addressing those hotspots, sticking with those producers and suppliers and working together to improve and measure that improvement and report it. This is what matters.” 

I realize I might be giving you way more information than you needed, Kelly, when you just want to know how to avoid the bad guys. Thing is, sustainability is often not an issue of clear good guys and bad guys, but rather a slow, clumsy process of doing better, understanding more, and supporting those taking steps in the right direction.

But let’s drill down to your basic question: What t-shirt should you buy, Kelly? Let’s assume, from what the New York Times told us, that an “organic” cotton t-shirt might well be a conventional cotton t-shirt with a higher price tag. Until the industry gets better at ensuring that what’s on the label is, in fact, what’s in the product, the best we can do is support companies that are being transparent about their own sourcing, and who are also doing good in other ways — avoiding sweatshops and child labor, paying workers a fair wage, offering safe working conditions. We can purchase from companies that produce their goods domestically. We can buy better quality and, perhaps most impactfully, we can buy fewer items. We can repair items rather than tossing them. We can purchase second-hand. I picked up a pretty J. Crew blouse from Chicken Alley for $6 in the fall. My daughter bought a full-length dress for a formal at Martha’s Closet for $4. She’s a fashion student, so she got out her scissors, turned it into a mini, and was the belle of the ball. 

Unfortunately t-shirts tend to make lousy cast-offs, unless they started off high-quality or were donated like new. Pilling, stretching, and stains often make them better candidates for dustrags than second-hand offerings. 



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