Our Love Affair with Organic Cotton

Organic. Organic. Organic. Organic Cotton? Greenhome.com sells a lot of it – 381 different products, to be exact.

But as I’m new to the business, it took me a while to get my arms around what that meant. I started my research with the USDA, which administers the whole idea of “organic”. Their definition is as follows:

“Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards.”

Ok. So the USDA definition makes my head hurt. No more definitions.

The Organic Trade Association’s FAQs are a little simpler to read:

Big takeways from them: organic cotton is cotton grown with no nasty pesticides, no synthetic fertilizer, and no GMO seeds.

But what I really wanted to know was why does organic cotton cost more, and why is it so popular aka good for you?

The cost question intrigued me. I mean, we ask you guys to pay a premium for organic cotton products, since it costs more for us to buy, and we should understand why.

I found scores of articles on the subject. In fact why does organic cotton cost more? turned up 2 million hits on google. For record, I did not read them all.

One good article worth reading is from Environmental News Network. They share a couple of interesting thoughts, but it struck me that most of their comments really boils down to the following: GMO, heavy use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer are the three main ways the ag sector has learned to reduce costs over the last 75 years, and organic by definition can’t take advantage of that. Organic farmers still have to use more hand weeding, natural fertilizers and crop rotation, and are just always more susceptible to the pests, disease, and the weather than non organic farmers, meaning more land and labor is needed to relative to the crop produced.

So why would I pay the premium? A great article in Mother Earth News lays out there thoughts.

As for me, well, we know it’s not straight up cheaper – but some environmental economists would argue, that’s partly because not all of the costs (the “externalities”) are included in the cost of conventionally grown cotton. For example, something like 25% of the world’s pesticide use is on cotton. And it is the largest agricultural user of water. Some would argue we aren’t counting the environmental costs of water overuse and over spraying of toxic insecticides on our land, and maybe organic cotton is not much more expensive, it’s just that conventional cotton is artificially cheap.

But obviously a lot of people are buying organic cotton products despite the price. Over $4 billion in sales in 2009, up 35% from the previous year. When we ask our customers why, the rationale gets a bit clearer:

  1. they don’t want the planet paying the price for their desires, but most importantly
  2. it’s a personal health issue, they don’t want the clothes, towels, diapers, and blankets they use, which spend more time next to their skin than anything else, to have been grown with toxic chemicals.

Ok, I’ll buy that argument.   But do the research and make the decision for yourself.

Neal Dikeman is a co-owner of Greenhome.com, and a longtime cleantech investor and entrepreneur.

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