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POTENTIAL OF
ORGANICALLY GROWN COTTON

In California, out of 70,000 acres enrolled in the California Certified Organic Farmer (CCOF) program this past year, only about 500 were cotton (as compared to about 11,000 for grapes, for example). However, CCOF Executive Director Bob Scowcroft expects organic cotton acreage to double next year. Demand continues to outstrip supply as the level of interest among buyers is high. Scowcroft adds, "The first few farmers who are now growing cotton organically are the pioneers. The next 100 will be entrepreneurs."

In Texas, 40 acres of cotton were grown organically in 1990. By 1991, acreage for organic and transitional cotton had increased to 500 acres and is expected to reach 1,500 or more in 1992. The Texas Department of Agriculture's organic cotton certification program include standards for certifying cotton throughout the ginning and milling processes, so that end products, as well as raw fiber, can be certified as organic.

Most organic cotton farmers in Texas farm on the High Plains, where early freezes provide natural defoliation and drought provides a natural growth regulator. Some farmers are reviving older farming methods to control weeds and pests and to fertilize their land. For example, manure can be used for fertilizer, soaps can help control pests. Organic farmers will be combining these "old-fashioned" methods with the latest in biotechnology, biocontrol insects, Bacillus thuringiensis, and other genetic engineering, for example. Principles of integrated pest management and integrated crop management are necessary for a successful organic farming system.

Some farmers have expressed interest in planting acreage in organic cotton because of the premium price it fetches: between US $1.75 and US $1.95 per pound for varieties grown in California, and between US $1.00 and US $1.35 for Texas varieties. This premium reflects the relatively scarce supply and relatively high demand for organic cotton now, as well as the initial costs of conversion to organic methods.

The higher price for organic cotton also reflects the extra attention required of producers and processors in keeping it isolated during storage, handling, and shipping and in cleaning chemicals such as boric acid out of equipment used to process regular cotton.

Consumer Demand
John Price of Texas Tech University's International Center for Textile Research and Development says interest in organic cotton has accelerated in the past year or so. Some companies are interested principally in profits while others are genuinely concerned about the health of the environment. A tremendous stimulus to the fledgling organic cotton niche comes from Europe, where consumer awareness of environmental problems has created the market for environmentally friendly products.

Several companies are offering lines of clothing or home textiles in organic or "natural" cotton. Some of these are small businesses that market their products through "ecostores" or mail-order catalogs that carry a variety of environmentally friendly products. Others are large, well- known textile or clothing companies that have added organic or "natural" lines.

Fieldcrest Cannon's new line of environmentally friendly products: unbleached, undyed, untreated 100% cotton sheets, towels, and kitchen linens were added to existing product lines. These products started selling rather slowly, but have picked up considerably as consumer education and awareness have increased. The company expects these products to be a good four to five percent of their total market.

Cotton grown organically and handpicked in Turkey is being sold to Danish textile manufacturer Novotex A/S, which, along with Dutch company Bo Weevil BV, is manufacturing organic cotton T-shirts. European demand for organic cotton products is expected to grow, so U.S. suppliers may be able to export organic cotton competitively with suppliers like Turkey.

Burlington Knitted Fabrics is another major textile manufacturer that has introduced a line of cotton knits that are "gentler to the environment." While these GREENVISTA cotton knits are not made with organic cotton, they are processed and packaged without formaldehyde.

Smith & Hawken, a garden supply and apparel catalog company, is currently offering naturally colored cotton items and will soon add organic cotton items to their line. Earthlings reports that about 20% of their infantwear products are made with organic cotton, and are selling well. Backstage Issue offers "Green Cotton Environment" tee- shirts as well as pants, shirts, shorts, and denim made from cotton grown organically in Arizona. Seventh Generation company, which sells environmentally friendly products, includes items made with organic cotton.

Esprit is another major company that offers apparel lines made with organic or "clean" cotton. Esprit International sells clothing in 35 countries, and 80% of its products are made with cotton. Lynda Grose, head designer of Esprit's Ecollection, would like all the cotton it purchases to be organic.

One of the markets that first sparked interest in organic cotton was bedding for chemically sensitive and highly allergic people. "Natural" bedding continues to form an important part of the organic cotton niche. Pure Podunk, Inc. in Vermont is an example of the several companies that are selling bedding made with organic cotton and wool.

Long-Term Prospects
Because products made with organic or untreated cotton are just beginning to come on the market, it is difficult to predict their long-term success. Manufacturers and retailers who have conducted market research and tracked consumer trends tend to be optimistic.

Organic fibers, like organic food, will probably remain a small but viable segment of the market. Because concern for the environment represents a major shift in values rather than merely a consumer fad, this niche in the natural fibers market looks promising.

Written by: Julia Kveton Apodaca


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