• Geographical markets and large brands

    Chapter 5 - Market segments - Organic cotton: an opportunity for trade 

    The United States is the biggest market for organic cotton and eco-textiles. Current organic cotton consumption in the form of apparel end-products in the United States is roughly estimated at 9,500 tons (41% of the world total) against 7,000 tons in Europe (30% of total).* Japan is estimated to consume the equivalent of about 350 tons of organic cotton per year. Other markets exist in the rest of Asia, in Australia, in Canada, in Egypt and Israel, and in South Africa.

    In Europe, organic cotton usage is highest in Switzerland (about 2,250 tons), followed by Germany (1,500 tons), the United Kingdom (about 750 tons), France (600 tons), Sweden (350 tons), Italy (250 tons) and the Netherlands (100 tons). Smaller markets exist in other European countries including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Portugal and Spain.

    The importance of large brands and retailers in the use of organic cotton fibre is increasing steadily. An estimated 58% of organic cotton fibre worldwide is taken up by just 25 brands and companies. Some of these brands sell their organic cotton items throughout the world.**

    The biggest user of organic cotton fibre until now, United States-based Nike, is one of the brands selling internationally. The focus of Nike’s original blending and conversion programmes was first on the United States. Today, the organic cotton programme relies more on the company’s Europe, Middle East and Africa division, based in the Netherlands.

    Nike’s own estimates for 2007 are that Europe, the Middle East and Africa will sell 84% of all Nike’s 100% organic cotton items, and the United States just 3% of the total. For the organic cotton blending programme (blends of 5% or more organic cotton), the United States accounts for 37% of units sold, against 44% for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This difference in orientation of organic cotton use across geographical markets is likely to be related to the availability and price of organic cotton fibre, yarn and fabrics in the United States and the Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

    Outdoor wear company Patagonia is now the fourth-largest user of organic cotton fibre worldwide, with an annual consumption of about 650 tons. Patagonia sells its products in the United States, in Europe and in Asia. The organic cotton it uses comes primarily from the United States and from Turkey.

    United States of America

    The consumption of organic products in the United States has been increasing for many years, and was strengthened by the introduction in 2002 of the National Organic Programme (NOP) administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The growth rate of the organic food sector was 18% per year on average since 1997, while the conventional market grew by only 3%. The organic market share thus tripled to 2.5% of total in 2005 (OTA, 2006).

    In 2005, organic turnover amounted to $14.6 billion (EUR 12.2 billion). Sales of organic food products grew by 17%. Turnover of non-food products including textiles and clothing, cosmetics, flowers and animal feed, increased by 33% to $774 million (OTA, 2006). Consumption of organic products is largest in the north-east around New York and Washington, and on the West Coast in California. However, sales are increasing throughout the United States now that organic products are being included in the regular offer of shops and supermarkets.

    Total United States organic cotton consumption is approximately 9,500 tons of fibre, or 40% of global production and trade. Wal-Mart is the leader in organic cotton usage in the United States and in the world today. In 2006, it bought an unprecedented 10,000 pounds of cotton fibre (4,500 tons) at once. A wide range of organic cotton items is currently being manufactured, and will be available for sale in 2007. Wal-Mart started sales of organic cotton items in 2005 through its subsidiary Sam’s Club (yogawear). In 2006 it launched sales in Wal-Mart supermarkets of babywear under the label ‘George Baby Organic’.

    Up until 2003, sale of organic cotton items in the United States relied predominantly on electronic commerce, mail order catalogues, natural and health food stores, and small specialized eco-textile shops or boutiques. Today, however, regular shops and supermarkets also have organic cotton items for sale, including the department stores of Nordstrom, the brand stores of American Apparel, Levi’s, Nike and Timberland, Wal-Mart supermarkets, and the natural food giant Whole Foods. Electronic commerce and mail order purchases remain important though. They are also more common for United States consumers than for Europeans.

    In the early stages of the United States eco-textile market, organic cotton items tended to be made primarily with United States-grown cottons. However, strategies for cost reduction and increased economic efficiency now lead United States companies to increasingly source their organic cotton elsewhere – mostly in Turkey, but also in China, India and Pakistan. United States cotton is relatively expensive, as is local textile processing, which has experienced a significant decrease since 2000. The larger companies are accustomed to sourcing their cotton, yarns, fabrics and garments in lower-wage countries. Many also work with decentralized purchasing and sales, which favours sourcing organic cotton outside the United States.

    An exception to the trend of textile industry relocation is the brand American Apparel, which uses United States cottons to process ‘sweatshop-free’ 100% United States-made T-shirts in downtown Los Angeles. The company’s turnover has increased 50% per year since 2002, to $210 million in 2005. American Apparel has used organic cotton fibre for the unbleached and undyed Sustainable Edition collection since 2003, but usage is still small. American Apparel sells its products through department stores and regular shops, and runs own-brand stores. Recently, sales were expanded to Europe with the opening of shops in Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt, among others.


    In Europe, Germany has long been considered to be the largest market for organic cotton textiles. Today, however, Switzerland is the largest European user of organic cotton fibre, thanks to the involvement of the two main supermarket chains Coop and Migros, which offer 100% organic cotton items for sale. T-shirt producer Switcher is the third-largest retailer involved in the Swiss organic cotton market, selling items through its own stores as well as through supermarkets and department stores.

    Total organic cotton usage in Switzerland is estimated at 2,250 tons of fibre, of which Coop carries 1,428 tons (63%), Migros about 500 tons (22%) and Switcher 150 tons (7%). According to the NGO Helvetas, which actively promotes organic cotton, the Swiss Government has agreed to aim for 5% of Swiss cotton fibre use to be organic in 2007; the equivalent of about 2,700 tons of fibre. One way to reach this goal is through ‘green public’ purchasing. The police of Zürich, for example, recently committed to purchasing uniforms made of organic cotton.

    Switzerland is the second largest market for fair trade products in Europe after the United Kingdom (Krier, 2006). Max Havelaar food products are carried by Migros and Coop under special labels. Max Havelaar Switzerland has been a pioneer in the launch of fair trade cotton, next to Max Havelaar France (see below). Fair trade cotton textiles and clothing currently for sale include T-shirts, babywear, towels, bathrobes and cotton wool products. These are available at Migros supermarkets, Manor department stores, the Switcher points of sale, the mail order companies La Redoute and Lehner Versand, and at retailers of home textiles.


    Germany is the largest market for organic products in Europe, and also has the highest population in Europe (82 million). Environmental awareness is high in many layers of society.

    German companies have been at the forefront of the development of the market for ecological textiles. Demand for Naturtextilien (natural textiles) was fuelled in the early 1990s by concerns about skin allergies caused by textile dyes and clothing accessories, and by a strong movement of ‘green’ consumers. Also, the major German textile and clothing industries were interested in converting their production to higher-value items, such as organic items, in order to cope with the competition from low-wage countries in the production of textiles and clothing.

    Consumption of organic cotton in Germany was estimated to be the equivalent of about 1,500 tons of fibre in 2006. Eco-textile sales in Germany have always been dominated by mail order companies. Specialist Hess Natur was the largest eco-textile selling mail order company up to 2000 when the much larger OTTO took over. Other mail order companies selling organic cotton textiles and clothing in the German market include Greenpeace-Germany, Hans Natur, Maas Natur and Waschbär. The large German mail order company Neckermann, which has owned Hess Natur since 2001, recently launched its first sales of organic cotton textiles (bioRe 96% organic cotton bed linen). Neckermann is part of the Karstadt/Quelle group.

    Organic cotton items are also for sale in Germany in specialized natural and health food stores, including the large AlNatura Super Natur markets. These sell a wide collection of 100% organic cotton Cotton People Organic babywear which is produced in Egypt, and some hygienic products for daily use (Bo Weevil 100% organic cotton wool, Natracare 100% organic cotton tampons).

    The sale of organic cotton items by high-street retailers is increasing rapidly in Germany. In August 2006, for example, the author encountered organic cotton items for sale in downtown Frankfurt in the department store Sportarena (Nike’s 100% organic cotton shirts), the Timberland brand store (15%, 6% and 5% blended items), the Grüne Erde natural store (100% organic cotton home textiles and bed wear, including brown and green naturally coloured cottons), and the new American Apparel store (100% organic cotton T-shirts). The Dutch company C&A, which is an important actor in the German market, plans to follow this organic trend by blending 1% organic cotton into its cotton products by 2008.

    Germany has a significant number of small and medium-sized eco-textile processing companies, many of which gather twice a year at InNaTex, the international trade fair for ecological textiles. About 200–250 companies exhibit at InNaTex, most of them German. They sell organic cotton items, but also many other products made out of silk, wool, linen and bamboo. Most visitors are representatives of small and medium-sized natural textile shops.

    United Kingdom

    The United Kingdom is one of the fastest-growing markets for organic food. In 2005, the organic market increased by 30%, three times the rise of the previous year. More and more United Kingdom consumers look to organics as a way to reduce their environmental impact and enjoy eco-friendly products. Organic cotton usage in the United Kingdom is estimated to be the equivalent of 750 tons of fibre.

    Popular high-street retailers such as Topshop, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Next, and Oasis, and supermarkets such as Asda already sell organic cotton items or are preparing to do so in 2007. Tesco will launch a 100% organic cotton collection by top designer Katharine Hamnett. Successful United Kingdom brands selling organic cotton textiles and clothing include People Tree, Hug, Gossypium, Seasalt and Ciel, and mail order companies such as Greenfibres and Howies (Soil Association, 2006).

    A big push forward for the organic cotton market in the United Kingdom was expected from M&S, which announced in 2003 that it would convert an increasing percentage of its cotton use to organic. This has not yet materialized however. Today, M&S’s focus is on fair trade cotton items, for which it is now establishing itself as the leading retailer worldwide.

    One of the new United Kingdom brands in organic cotton is Next which sells clothing and home furnishings. Next has close to 400 stores in the United Kingdom, and some in Ireland and Denmark. It is also represented through 80 franchise stores in 14 other countries in Europe and in the Middle and Far East. In addition, Next sells by mail order and through electronic commerce, and had about 2 million active customers in 2005. Turnover of the Next Group was EUR 4.3 billion (GBP 2.9 billion) in 2005.

    In 2006, Next investigated opportunities to develop specific ranges in 100% organic cotton across its business. A trial range of four women’s jersey long- and short-sleeved tops and ecru jeans went into store in September 2006. A range of organic babywear is also on sale (three-packs of bodysuits and sleepsuits for newborn boys and girls). ‘For 2007, the number of organic cotton products will be expanded to include women’s,men’s and childrenswear.Next is also exploring the opportunities for fair trade cotton, and hopes to have a small range of products on sale in 2007’, writes Next’s Philippa Dalton (20 October 2006).

    The United Kingdom certification body Soil Association reports high interest from fashion brands for organic textile certification. In 2007 the Soil Association will adopt the new Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), together with other international organic textile certifiers.


    France is another booming market for socially and environmentally responsible cotton products. France has been a pioneer in the development of fair trade cotton, and the fair trade movement is supported financially by the French Government. Organic cotton consumption is also increasing. Organic cotton textiles and clothing can be encountered with surprising ease in the French capital Paris today. Consumption in 2006 is estimated at 600 tons of fibre.

    Supermarket chain Monoprix is the main French retailer of organic cotton products, with a consumption of 163 tons of bioRe cotton in 2005. Monoprix sells 100% organic cotton clothing products under different labels for babies (Bout’Chou, whole range), children (C.F.K. sweaters and underwear, WWF shirts), men (Derby underwear, Autre Ton printed shirts) and women (Miss Helen underwear and nightwear). Monoprix’s household textiles and bed linen do not yet include organic cotton products, nor do the hygienic cotton products. Many textile and clothing products at Monoprix carry the skin-friendly Oeko-Tex label, including some of the 100% organic cotton items.

    Another major French retailer is the textile and clothing company Celio, which has a total of 370 shops, of which 220 are in France and the others elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East and the Maghreb. Celio is the leader in the French market for menswear, before Gap, H&M, Zara and others (Collomp, 2006). Celio now carries a range of printed T-shirts made of 100% organic cotton. Celio is also involved in the sale of Max Havelaar-labelled fair trade socks.

    French mail order companies carrying organic cotton items include Somewhere/La Redoute, Vertbaudet, Le Camif and Fibris.

    The French market for fair trade products is growing rapidly. Max Havelaar France pioneered the production and trade of fair trade cotton in 2004, with first sales starting in spring 2005. Fair trade cotton was launched with a range of textile and clothing products. Sales in Belgium, Switzerland and the United Kingdom followed soon after.

    In 2006, there were 27 companies registered by Max Havelaar France for the production and sale of fair trade cotton items in France. The fair trade cotton items are for sale in main supermarkets and department stores (Auchan, Carrefour, Casino, Cora, Intermarché and E. Leclerc), through mail order and over the Internet (La Redoute, La Camif), as well as through specialized stores and brand stores.

    Other markets

    Further markets for organic cotton textiles and clothing products can be found in the other European countries (including Eastern Europe), in Japan and the Far East (China, Malaysia, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Thailand), in Canada, in Australia, in the Middle East (including Israel, Egypt and Turkey), as well as in countries of low average income but with significant segments of society enjoying a medium to high income (such as Brazil and South Africa).

    *These figures take into account the fact that many United States-based textile and clothing companies involved, including Levi’s, Nike and Timberland, sell a significant part of their production internationally.
    **Wal-Mart is the largest organic cotton fibre user in the world today. Its organic cotton items are so far only for sale in the United States. Expansion to other countries and regions may occur if United States sales are successful. 
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    Cotton Exporter's Guide

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