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Bená Burda puts an organic spin on cotton

Hilary Oliver

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Bená Burda puts an organic spin on cotton

BenaBená Burda laughingly recalls the president of golf-clothing manufacturer Cutter & Buck saying he wanted to shake her hand. He was amazed that Burda—unaware of what a convoluted, difficult sector the apparel industry is—dived right in to create one of the first organic cotton clothing companies in the United States.

When Burda began her organics industry career in the early 1990s, she didn't envision cotton socks and camisoles—she was working for Little Bear Snack Foods, producing organic corn chips. But 15 years later, she has helped formulate industry standards for organic textiles, created a new business model with a worker-owned textiles cooperative in Nicaragua and continues to raise awareness for organic textiles through her line of cotton garments, Maggie's Organics. It started with talking to an organic farmer about corn chip color.

Burda noticed that the color in Little Bear's blue-corn chips tended to fade, instead of staying a rich hue. Trying to find a natural solution for the problem rather than adding a colorant, Burda talked to the farmer, who said he might have an answer. His solution was to add cotton to his crop rotation, which helped fortify the soil, producing more richly colored corn. The only problem was what to do with this unexpected cotton crop.

Instead of leaving the farmer to find a market himself, Burda took on the challenge of putting the crop to good use. "It was the early '90s, and it was a much smaller industry back then," she says. "But you had a loyal, devoted relationship with your [organic] farmers, supporting their agricultural practices, whatever they were growing." So Burda started making socks, and eventually camisoles, T-shirts and tights from the organic cotton.

In 1992, Burda took her socks to a natural foods trade show, where organic nonfood items were still a bit of a novelty, but the environmental benefits of growing organic cotton helped in the marketing. "About half a pound of cotton and a third of a pound of pesticides go into making an American T-shirt," she says.

The organic cotton industry has taken off in recent years, with sales increasing an estimated 35 percent annually between 2001 and 2005, according to Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Organic Exchange, which promotes the use of organic cotton. The brands surveyed by Organic Exchange incorporated an estimated 19.9 billion pounds of organic cotton in their products in 2005. That's the equivalent of saving about 13 billion pounds of pesticides from entering the environment.

In 1992 there were no governmental standards for organic clothing—and there are still none today. But Burda and others on the Organic Trade Association's Fiber Council formulated the American Organic Fiber Processing Standards, which are industry-led and apply to the United States and Canada. Though government-enforced regulations are not expected any time soon, the OTA standards have been incorporated into the Global Organic Textile Standard, an international, nongovernmental collaboration that allows for a single organic-textile certification mark, accepted in markets worldwide.

"Without [Burda's] drive, I doubt the organic fiber processing standards would have become part of the OTA American Organic Standards or the new Global Organic Textile Standards," says Sandra Marquardt, who coordinated OTA's Fiber Council steering committee.

Nicaraguan co-opBurda's industry activism didn't stop with certification. She discovered that manufacturing a bag of organic tortilla chips and making an organic cotton camisole are two very different things. Once corn is harvested, adding oil and seasoning to produce chips is a matter of only a few hours. However, because of the complex nature of the textiles industry, a cotton camisole often travels over three different continents before it's finished, Burda explains. The 40 percent of the cotton crop actually usable for making clothing is sent to a spinner, a knitter, a wet finisher and, finally, a cut-and-sew house, where the final product is assembled. The entire process can take six to eight weeks, she says, and for conventional cotton products, each stage incorporates added chemicals. Burda wanted to bring all of her contracts into the United States and eliminate all the harmful chemicals used in processing. But things didn't turn out exactly how she planned.

Between 1999 and 2000, Maggie's Organics lost five cut-and-sew houses to bankruptcy. Burda had contractors call her on a Friday to say they were closing over the weekend, leaving her with no choice but to fly to the factory, pick up the T-shirt pieces and plead with another contractor to complete the 10,000 unfinished shirts. Maggie's, along with the rest of the U.S. textiles industry, was forced to consider taking its production offshore, an idea Burda didn't particularly like.

"When we went offshore with sewing," she says, "we knew enough to say it's going to be hard to do this without using a sweatshop." Just as Burda had found ways to avoid using the chemicals common in conventional cotton farming and processing, she found an alternative to the sweatshops used to produce much of the conventional textiles sold in the Unites States. "To me, at Maggie's, you can't have environmental sustainability without social responsibility," she says. "With apparel, it's an issue that stares you in the face."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 46, 50

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