While demand for organic fibers continues to rise, expanding supplies of organic cotton from countries like Turkey and Pakistan have put price pressure on growers in the United States, who responded by reducing organic cotton production in 2002.
Although apparel manufacturers including Patagonia, Timberland and Cutter & Buck have announced organic cotton product lines, according to a new report from the Organic Trade Association, the acreage planted in organic cotton last year in the United States fell 22 percent to 9,044 acres from 11,586 acres in 2001.
At the same time, high yardage minimums imposed by fabric mills make it tough for growers to sell their crops and manufacturers to source fabric in smaller quantities, said La Rhea Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative in Lubbock.
"We've had really mixed signals from large users of organic cotton," Pepper said. Farmers who had hoped to take commitments from big manufacturers to the bank to expand their organic cotton crop have gotten burned, she said, and such market confusion needs to be straightened out before farmers commit to the time and expense of converting acreage from conventional to organic production.
"We can't compete with Third World countries in terms of labor costs," she said.
Some organic farmers were left with unsold cotton last year, even as organic-cotton clothing lines were announced by major companies. Hanna Andersson introduced 100 percent organic cotton long johns and "short johns" for kids and adults last fall, made in Sweden of Swiss cotton. Nike added a 100 percent organic cotton option to its women's apparel line last fall, and Gaiam launched a "Home" line of 100 percent organic sheets, blankets and pajamas.
"I'm not working to expand production until what is already produced can be sold," said Sandra Marquardt, coordinator of the OTA's Fiber Council and the report's author.
Some market conditions that favor offshore producers will be tough to change, Marquardt said. Companies whose manufacturing plants are overseas usually seek to source raw materials closer to production, and raw agricultural material costs are lower in developing nations. But other companies seek to balance sourcing costs and problems with a marketing message such as "Grown and Sewn in the USA."
Organic Exchange, an Albany, Calif., company, is working to develop consistent "portfolios of fabric" that will help build the organic volumes that mills and yarn spinners need to provide wider consumer choice. "If they get the volume, costs go down, manufacturers buy more and organic products become more present in the marketplace," said Organic Exchange President Rebecca Calahan Klein. "We're basically committed to taking organic cotton from a niche market to a global commodity."
To better match growers and buyers, Klein is also working with retailers and manufacturers to create more accurate estimates of market demand—not just "Nike needs 10,000 pounds," but exactly what material, in what country, and with what yarn and fabric vendors.
Marquardt's report surveyed all the organic cotton farmers in the United States: 20 members of the Texas cooperative and 10 others in New Mexico, California, Arizona and Missouri. Her figures included both certified and transitional acreage.
OTA's organic fiber processing standards should be complete by fall 2003, Marquardt said.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 11, 19