Fifteen years ago, not even the most optimistic proponents of the organic food industry would have imagined their goods in the mainstream of big business. But a lot can change in a decade and a half. What was once considered the food—and unappealing food at that—of a radical, alternative lifestyle, is now considered the fashionable stuff of gourmets and trendsetters. The organic industry's vigorous marketing, lobbying and educational efforts have brought about a revolution: The idealism and dedication of a few has changed the way an entire nation views both its food consumption and the effects that consumption has on the earth.
Heartened by these triumphs and the implementation of the National Organic Program in October 2002, another small group of "alternative radicals" has begun the uphill climb toward mainstream acceptance, and made some impressive strides. With precedent on its side, the organic fiber industry hopes to broaden the spotlight on the importance of reducing chemical use and implementing sustainability beyond food production, with a national standard for organic fiber product production.
The Organic Fiber Council, a branch of the Organic Trade Association, at press time was reviewing the fourth and final draft of definitions and standards more than three years in the making. Once the OFC's Quality Assurance Committee accepts this draft, it will be sent to the OTA Board for final approval and inclusion in OTA's official American Organic Standards. This inclusion is expected to be announced at the OTA's All Things Organic Conference in Austin, May 8-11, and will serve as a significant boon to the organic fiber effort.
"At some point in time we want fiber to have the same integrity check as food," says LaRhea Pepper, market developer for the Texas Organic Cotton Cooperative and president of Organic Essentials, a Texas-based organic cotton company. "If you want to call a cotton product organic, you'll have to follow a specific set of rules." The Texas Cooperative, whose 40 producers currently account for nearly 70 percent of the U.S. organic cotton crop, was integral in helping to develop the OFC standards.
Pepper stresses the need to define processing standards. "A cotton bale is a lot different than strawberries sold at a roadside market," Pepper says. "With the strawberries, you know the farmer, you know where the strawberries came from—it's that simple. But with cotton, even an organic crop has to make a lot of stops before it's ready for the consumer."
It is these steps that the OFC is working so diligently to define. "The difference between organic and conventional salsa can be found in one step," says Bena Burda, owner of Maggie's Organics/Clean Clothes Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich. "You replace conventional tomatoes and onions with organic ones and you're done. But with a T-shirt, there's an eight- to 10-week series of stages from fiber to finished product, and at every one of those stages chemicals are introduced. All of those chemicals need to be reviewed for environmental, health and safety impacts and suitable alternatives found before a T-shirt can truly be considered organic."
OFC Coordinator Sandra Marquardt further emphasizes the importance of standards. "Without a processing standard for each step, manufacturers couldn't make uniform claims about their products, and the consumer would end up lost in often meaningless claims. With standardization, the consumers know what they're getting and providers at each stage are unambiguous about the criteria they need to meet."
In developing its standards, the OFC culled existing criteria from every available source, both here and abroad—sources that range from the Texas Department of Agriculture to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements to Australia's National Association for Sustainable Agriculture. "Our draft standards are an amalgam of all the standards out there, massaged to meet the needs of OFC members and [abide by] U.S. law. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel," Marquardt says.
What the OFC does want to do is provide a basis for growth and legal regulation within the industry. According to Marquardt, conventional cotton is second only to corn in quantities of pesticides used on crops—84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to the cotton crop in the United States last year alone. "Cotton is grown on less than 3 percent of U.S. agricultural lands, yet it uses 20 percent to 25 percent of the pesticides," Pepper says. "We're talking about a chemically intensive crop. By converting to organic, we can make significant positive environmental impacts."
Even before the standards have been officially accepted, the future looks bright. "My company uses these standards already as if they were law," says Burda. "And we've made inroads with manufacturers and mills that two years ago told us what we were proposing was impossible." In fact, most companies producing organic fiber products—from clothing to tampons—have already adopted or exceeded the proposed standards in anticipation of their acceptance.
Several mainstream companies also have already shown support for the movement toward organic fiber. Nike, for one, has a full-time global sustainability director for apparel who also heads the OFC steering committee. The company, which has become one of the largest consumers of organically grown U.S. cotton, currently incorporates at least 5 percent organic cotton into all its U.S. cotton apparel and uses 100 percent organic cotton in an increasing number of global products. Patagonia, which openly shares information about raw materials sourcing and milling with competitors, provides another example of corporate commitment to sustainable agriculture. Other companies, including Cutter and Buck, Timberland, Norm Thompson Outfitters, and Hanna Andersson, are either using or developing blended or 100 percent organic cotton product lines, according to Marquardt.
Although organic cotton currently accounts for less than half a percent of worldwide production and current market conditions are still a challenge for agriculture across the board, the dedicated remain optimistic. "If we, as a small percentage, can start affecting changes," says Burda, "then [we hope] one day those changes will affect the entire industry." And if the recent history of organic foods is any indicator, with a little tenacity, the small minority can make a big difference down the line.
Josh Dinar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 32, 36
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 32
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 36