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March 2007
Cotton BASICs
The Satya Interview with Lynda Grose

 

Cotton is one of the most widely traded commodities on earth. It is also one of the most chemically intensive crops in the world. In the U.S., growing and harvesting one pound of conventional cotton fiber involves as much as one third of a pound of extremely toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The Sustainable Cotton Project, located in California’s Central Valley, recognizes this and focuses on working with farmers, manufacturers and consumers to pioneer markets for chemically reduced, sustainable cotton as well as organic cotton.

The SCP has instituted three programs to ensure that from supply to demand, the market becomes more sustainable. For the farmers, the Biological Agriculture Systems In Cotton (BASIC) program focuses on teaching farmers chemical and reduction techniques that make economic sense. Using as much as 73 percent less fungicides, miticides and insecticides, the BASIC program institutes biological techniques that address the need for more sustainable cotton. The Cleaner Cotton Campaign educates manufacturers about successful business models and strategies for incorporating organic and sustainable cotton into existing products. And their Care What You Wear initiative educates the consumer about the importance of purchasing organic and sustainable cotton products and bolstering their demand.

Lynda Grose, Marketing Consultant of the Sustainable Cotton Project, keeps the three components in motion: making calls to companies, aligning farmers, enlisting companies for SCP’s annual farm tours. She also teaches sustainable fashion at the California College of the Arts.

Lynda Grose was “doing back flips” while discussing the current success of BASIC with Maureen C. Wyse.

How did you personally become involved with this movement and the Sustainable Cotton Project?
In the late 80s I was working with Esprit and the owner Doug Tompkins, an avid outdoors person, had seen over time the environment deteriorate and felt environmental issues were going to be an integral part of business in the future. So he initiated a company-wide lecture series involving environmentalists speaking to the company. He also started an eco audit looking at the way we did things as a company and identifying how to change them to lessen our impact on the environment. As a designer there, I started looking at products and becoming aware of the issues of textile manufacturing.

The research I did culminated in a line of clothing called Ecollection. Esprit sponsored, and the Sustainable Cotton Project was instrumental in organizing, the first organic cotton conferences in the early 90s. Here we met farmers growing organic cotton and purchased organic fiber for Ecollection. When I left Esprit, I was asked by the director of SCP to work with them in creating a market for organic cotton farmers. Farmers are not usually involved in the supply chain at all. They sell the fiber to a broker and generally have no idea which retailer eventually buys it. Likewise, companies have no idea who grows the cotton they buy. I was hired because I am familiar with the needs of companies and can ‘speak’ the textile language.

Can you tell us a bit about the other projects you work on?
I design products for companies who want alternative material for sources. I usually design knitwear. I’ve designed sweaters for Patagonia and recently a line for Indigenous Designs. I also traveled to Mexico, Armenia, Kyrgystan, Kazakstan, Turkkmenistan and Peru working with a nonprofit called Aid to Artisans. ATA projects help artisans support themselves economically whilst preserving their native crafts.

What SCP accomplishment are you most proud of?
Educating companies about the issues with cotton especially through our farm tours. By the time companies, including Patagonia, Nike, Timberland, Sam’s Club, Target, Levi’s and American Apparel, to name a few, leave our farm tours, they’ve heard a doctor talk about increased cancer rates, seen crop dusters spraying chemicals, listened to farmers explain how difficult it is to switch from conventional to organic and heard about the economic pressures for small family farmers. They’ve also been in the fields and have seen beneficial insects, interplanting and heard field scouts explain the BASIC program. It’s a visceral experience. When the executives and employees go back to their offices they understand why providing a market for organic and biologically produced cotton is important. That’s something to be proud of, raising awareness.

Once a company starts to implement a program, they understand we are not just marketing a product because there’s an eco trend. We are really shifting an industry.

But surely the bigger companies, and this may sound idealistic, are the ones who can make it happen.
Everyone is well meaning, and well intentioned and there are lots of change agents within companies. However, the economic and corporate systems dominate the workplace and often run contrary to ecological goals. But, this year we have a breakthrough in creating a completely new market for chemically reduced cotton called BASIC (Biological Agriculture Systems in Cotton). Even though we talk about the ills of cotton and the benefits from organic, it’s expensive for farmers to grow organic in California. Companies purchase organic cotton overseas because it’s cheaper due to reduced labor costs. BASIC cotton achieves the same yields as conventional cotton, so the price per pound is less than organic and it’s more economically feasible for farmers and companies.

Recently I read a quote about Nike abstaining from organic cotton because they didn’t want to “take it away” from competitor Patagonia. Is this true?
[Sigh] Yes and no. If there’s a market, farmers will grow it. Farmers grow only what they’re going to sell, or else they’re out of business. So if Patagonia, Nike and Wal-Mart customers ask for organic, suppliers will go to the spinners and the spinners will go to the brokers to ask for organic and the broker will contract with the farmer to grow it. The trick is getting that message up the supply chain in time for it to be planted and harvested when the company needs it. At the moment there is an eco trend and everyone wants organic cotton, so the demand is growing faster than the messaging up the supply chain to the farmer can travel. It’s good that companies are working together to ‘share’ the supply of organic, but they also need to take responsibility for projecting their organic cotton needs in advance to secure supply. These are savvy companies, they know the trends ahead of time and project their business operations all the time. If Nike really wanted organic cotton, their suppliers would make it happen.

What about subsidies for U.S. organic cotton farmers and the effect that would have on other nations?
I don’t disagree that U.S. subsidies affect other nations’ abilities to compete, but we should be moving toward local markets. If American cotton is grown for a local American market, it doesn’t affect an African farmer at all. We work with family farmers, and this commodity price, this global marketplace affects them as well. Yet, the Farm Bill and policy is detrimental to American and African farmers. I just don’t favor pitting Third World farmers against American farmers, when it’s really the economic system that is pitted against local economies and family farmers everywhere.

The environment also doesn’t benefit from a globalized economy. Shipping cotton fiber and products around the world takes its toll, even when it’s organic. If you look at the whole lifecycle of a product, the fiber is just one aspect. From a sustainable design perspective, shipping is a big issue contributing to global warming. For example, a company has one organic product out of India and a BASIC cotton product made domestically, which is more expensive. And it’s hard to reconcile that an organic product is cheaper than a chemically reduced, locally made one. Just because something is organic, doesn’t mean it’s sustainable in and of itself. Organic is just one aspect of a sustainable product.

Is there anything big on the horizon for SCP?
To increase the number of farmers, acres and market for BASIC. BASIC has more potential than organic, because organic is clearly a niche. Having said that, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing with marketing the BASIC program if organic didn’t exist. Organic has raised awareness in the consumer.

One of the original goals of the organic movement was to help family farmers compete with corporate farms by bringing a premium for their products. If you mainstream organic cotton, you actually drive the premium down for the farmer, and fail in one of the original objectives.

And I can speak to this as a designer, we can ‘drink too much of our own whisky’ and forget why we are designing organic products. Our goals are to one, keep more family farmers on the land because they will grow more diversely and maintain more diverse habitat than a corporate farm and two, to reduce chemical use on cotton. If we’re buying organic cotton from regions that didn’t use chemicals to begin with, then what are we really achieving?

What is one thing all of our readers should know about cotton?
Cotton is the biggest textile industry and makes up between 45 and 60 percent of the world’s textiles, depending on the trend for a given season. I think in the next year or two, consumers will be much more sophisticated about environmental issues and understand their role and power to affect change. Since the early 90s we’ve been thinking companies have the most power to change industry to more sustainable practives, but companies listen closely and respond fast to their customers. Know that you are the most powerful link in the chain. Educating ourselves about cotton and buying cotton that is better for the environment is one of the strongest impacts we can make on the textile industry.

For more information visit www.sustainablecotton.org.




 

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