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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Cotton

Air Date: Week of

Claire Green reports on the emerging market for organic cotton. The nation's favorite "natural" fiber is usually grown and produced through a highly chemical-intensive process. Now consumer pressure, environmental regulations and health concerns among growers and processors is stimulating a movement to chem-free cotton.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

In the old days, when cotton helped build some great Southern fortunes, it was grown organically. The fertilizer included mule droppings and the crop was picked by hand by slaves and sharecroppers. Nowadays, cotton is grown in a veritable chemical stew, with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and then, finally, herbicides to strip it of its leaves so machines can harvest it.

Now, as Claire Greene reports from San Francisco, organic cotton farming is coming back -- not only because it's good for the environment, but also because it's good for business.

(Sound of cotton fields)

GREENE: In California's southern San Joaquin Valley, the prevalence of cotton is overwhelming. All along Interstate 5, from Coalinga to south of Bakersfield, all you see are cotton fields -- one and a quarter million acres worth. Insuring that this highly vulnerable crop makes it through its nine-month growth cycle is the crop duster.

(Sound of crop duster overhead)

Cotton is the most chemically treated crop in California. A total of 14 million pounds of pesticides and defoliants are sprayed on it each year. Five million pounds of defoliant is applied in the weeks just prior to harvest, to prepare the plant for picking. The bulk of the crop's chemical treatments are aimed at its enemies: weeds and pests.

(Buzzing of insects)

GREENE: But over at Cal-Organic Farms, farmer Ed Davis has leveled the playing field. Here the pest war is being fought out among the insects.

DAVIS: That's an typical assassin bug right there. He's got a, well, you see that little straw sticking out of his mouth? That little straw he just sticks into other insects and he just literally sucks the juice right out of them. He is a incredibly voracious, beneficial organism that feeds on all soft-bodied insects.

GREENE: Fifteen years ago, Ed Davis was the top pesticide salesman in California. Today he is one of a small group of fully certified organic cotton farmers in the country. His 450-acre cotton field is beautiful. Davis says what keeps it that way are the bugs. Bugs that -- according to Davis -- feed on each other, not on the crop.

DAVIS: That guy right there, that's a nuroptura -- a lacewing. Their babies eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 aphids a day, those are the guys I release. Carnia chrysopa is his name. I release as much as a million lacewing a week during the production time frame to feed on guys just like him -- a sharpshooter leaf hopper which, well, there he went.

GREENE: Davis has had good luck this year. Figuring on a yield of two bales per acre, and a price of $1.25 a pound, his cotton is worth well over a half million dollars. That's about twice what the same amount of conventionally grown cotton would bring in. But gazing from the purview of the nation's $50 billion dollar retail cotton industry, organic cotton doesn't even make a blip. Of the 16 million bales of cotton harvested in this country last year, less than 3 thousand were certified organic. But that ratio is starting to change.

FOX: OK, is everybody ready? OK, what we're going to do is, the first thing we're going to do is to go and look at the regular varieties that all the farmers here are growing so you can see them, and then we're going to go look at . . . (Fade under)

GREENE: Sally Fox is one of organic cotton's pioneers. On this warm autumn afternoon, she's leading a large group of growers, manufacturers, and clothing designers around her 50-acre outdoor breeding nursery. Fox is the inventor of naturally colored organic cotton. The people on her tour are her clients, including a number of garment industry heavies: Esprit, Levi, Ecosport and Patagonia.

FOX: And then we're going to start looking at the whole breeding program, starting with the cross-pollination and bringing it year after year after year . . . (fade under)

GREENE: Fox has sponsored this tour and gathering annually for the past few years. Not long ago, she says, this would have been an unheard-of event. But organic cotton is gaining credibility, within agriculture and within the clothing industry.

FOX: In the past, if you brought up organic cotton people laughed, they thought this was the craziest thing they'd ever heard of. It's being taken seriously now.

GREENE: So seriously, in fact, that normally highly competitive garment maker types are coming together to talk about how to make organic cotton profitable. And how to get more of it into the marketplace.

BARON: Right now it's a feeding frenzy, there's no doubt about it.

GREENE: Alan Baron is with Ecosport -- a large manufacturer of organic cotton clothing. He says that since 1989, companies like Ecosport have increased their purchases of organic cotton, and what's called transitional cotton, tenfold.

BARON: We went from about 100 thousand pounds, hopefully we'll be doing about 2000 bales, which is about a million pounds, in less than three years.

GREENE: And, Baron says, consumers are turning up in the most unlikely places to buy organic cotton clothing.

BARON: If you went into New York City and you asked people, what's organic cotton, most people would not know, wouldn't have a clue. But it's popping up in Brooklyn. One of my best customers is in Brooklyn. I mean, you wouldn't think organic cotton in Brooklyn -- what a joke! But it sells great there.

(Sound of O-WEAR ad)

GREENE: O-WEAR is one of a handful of young companies making organic cotton clothing for men and women. Their items sell for between $30 and $80. This year O-WEAR made the leap from small boutiques to mainstream department stores.

(Sound of O-WEAR ad)

GREENE: A recent visit to the O-WEAR display at Macy's in San Francisco found that the clothing manufacturer's quirky radio ads -- aimed at the educated, thirtysomething crowd -- are on target.

CUSTOMER 1: I just prefer buying organic things whenever I can. Certainly in clothes, there isn't that much of an option, so I buy a lot of things, just regular clothes. But when I heard that they had this organic product and it feels very nice and doesn't seem to be much higher in price, it just seems like a good idea to support that.
CUSTOMER 2: I try to stay away from, or go to products that are more healing and feel less toxic.
GREENE: And even if it were higher priced than, say, conventional cotton -- would that faze you?
CUSTOMER 2: Doesn't make any difference. There's no price on my health nor the planet's health.

GREENE: Solid retail sales figures for organic cotton clothing are hard to come by, largely because the market is so young. This year O-WEAR sales are projected to fall just under $10 million dollars. That's double last year's figure. Observers say this kind of exponential growth will continue as the market establishes itself.

The forces pushing the organic cotton market aren't just coming from consumers. They're also coming from farmers and manufacturers. Julia Apodaca is a researcher with the Natural Fibers Research and Information Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Apodaca says farmers, too, are looking for alternatives to chemically-intensive farming. She says they're turned off by the high cost of pesticides and the fact that many of the chemicals they use make them sick.

APODACA: They're concerned about their own health, you know. Farmers get a lot of cancer. And they're also concerned about trying to keep up with environmental regulations. Things like disposal of pesticide containers or whatever. And if they don't use them, they don't have to worry about that.

GREENE: And while growers are busy exploring farming alternatives, manufacturers are looking for new ways to do business as well. George Akers is the found of O-WEAR. Earlier this year, Akers sold his tiny company to VF Corporation -- one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the country. Akers says what VF had in mind when they bought O-WEAR was having the company show them how to produce garments using less harmful processes -- processes that currently include acid washes, toxic dyes, and the use of resin and formaldehyde. Akers says what's driving these changes for VF Corporation is their feeling that ultimately many of their current manufacturing practices will be outlawed or too expensive to maintain.

AKERS: Everything they learn here then will go from O-WEAR to all the other companies they have: Meritee and Francois Jerbot, Wrangler, Lee, Jansen, Vanity Fair Intimate Apparel, Barbizon Intimate Apparel, Health-Tex Children's Clothes. Everything they learn from this one company then will go to all of the other divisions, and they'll implement these things in there. They'll find better ways of dyeing goods, and it's just the beginning of an evolution.

GREENE: Indeed, industry observers say the potential for organic cotton to impact major portions of the nation's farming and textile industries is real. Although organic cotton will never fully replace conventional, observers say its integration into the broader movement to decrease chemicals in the clothing industry will benefit purists and ordinary consumers alike. For Living on Earth, this is Claire Greene in San Francisco.



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