• Organic cotton

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


    Organic cotton is cotton that originates from organic agriculture. Agricultural production is considered ‘organic’ when it has been certified ‘organic’ by independent inspection and certification bodies according to the rules and regulations that apply in that particular country, region, or envisaged consumer market.

    The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), which is the representative body for organic agriculture worldwide, defines ‘organic agriculture’ according to four principles:**

    • The principle of health. Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
    • The principle of ecology. Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
    • The principle of fairness. Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
    • The principle of care. Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

    The principle of care. Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

    Farmers wishing to convert to organic agriculture will have to go through a conversion period of one to three years, depending on their fields’ history. The conversion period enables the soil and the environment to recover from previous cultivation, while applying organic methods of production. The ‘in-conversion’ produce can not be sold as ‘organic’, and does not usually fetch a premium in the market. The risks and costs of conversion are a major barrier to the adoption of organic agriculture.

    Organic production is generally more labour intensive, and yields may be – but are not necessarily – lower than in conventional production. Organic farmers usually fetch a premium for their produce in order to compensate for any yield loss, for increased handling operations and for additional costs such as inspection and certification. The premium may also be paid in order to ensure the loyalty of producers to the organic scheme.


    The European Union (EU regulation 2092/91),*** the United States (NOP)**** and Japan (JAS), among others, protect the use of the word ‘organic’ on food and processed food for sale. These regulations apply to products deriving from agriculture and animal husbandry, but not to products like fish or to non-food items such as cotton products. There are thus no particular legal requirements for the import and sale of organic cotton and organic cotton products in the main consumer markets in the North, other than those for conventional cotton.

    However, in order to distinguish cotton originating from certified organic farms from conventional cotton, market players will consider cotton ‘organic’ only if the seed cotton was produced on certified organic farms and processed in certified organic ginning mills. Certification by third parties is generally requested in order to back up producers’ organic claims, and to strengthen trust between the supplier and the buyer.

    Organic seed cotton and cotton fibre***** should be treated separately from conventional seed cotton and cotton fibre at any time; whether on the field, at storage in the village, on transport to the ginnery, during ginning, during storage at the ginnery or port, or during transport to the textile processing unit. The separate treatment should be duly documented and archived for the purpose of inspection and certification by a third party. Buyers will usually request a ‘transaction certificate’ from a third party to ensure that the cotton fibre traded was produced according to organic standards.

    Standard-setting for the processing and trade of organic cotton fibre results from private initiative. The lack of regulatory back-up by governmental policy can be considered a weak element of the current organization of the organic cotton sector. This was grounds, for example, for IFOAM to call upon the European Union (EU) to include organic textiles in the 2006 revision of the EU organic regulatory framework (IFOAM, 2005).

    Requirements for processing

    Private standards have also been developed for the environment-friendly processing of organic cotton fibre into yarn, fabric and garments. Many different voluntary standards for the ecological processing of organic cotton and textiles were developed, among others by the following control and certification agencies: Control Union/Skal (Netherlands), Organic Trade Association (OTA) (United States), Internationaler Verband der Naturtextilwirtschaft (IVN) (Germany), Soil Association (United Kingdom), Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA) (Japan) and Naturland (Germany). Individual companies may also have their standards for the ecological processing of their 100% organic cotton textiles and clothing.*******

    Global harmonization of organic textile standards is underway. Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) have been developed recently by the certifying bodies IVN, JOCA, Soil Association and OTA.******* Other certifiers are expected to join the GOTS initiative, which was launched on 1 October 2006. The harmonized standard aims to ensure the organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling, in order to provide credible assurance to the end-consumer. GOTS enables textile manufacturers to qualify their organic fabrics and garments with one certificate accepted in all major world markets, which is an important step towards harmonization and transparency of textile labels (IMO, 2006).

    The organic cotton business network Organic Exchange has established standards for textile certification which do not require all cotton used to be organic. The Organic Exchange Blended Standard (2005)******** relates to the tracking and tracing of certified organic cotton fibre that is blended into conventional textiles, for example at a rate of 5% organic cotton with 95% other fibres (conventional cotton, synthetic fibres, wool, etc.).

    Finally, there are a number of public and private labelling schemes that consider the sustainability of textile processing from the angle of consumer safety and the allergenity of textiles and clothing. Examples are the EU Flower eco-label for textiles and schemes such as Oeko-Tex 100 which ensure low levels of chemical residues in end-products.********* These schemes, however, do not require the use of organic cotton fibre.

    *A more detailed technical paper with the same title, written by Peter Ton, is available from ITC upon request.
    **IFOAM is in the process of establishing a full definition of ‘organic agriculture’; expected in 2008. For the four guiding principles see www.ifoam.org/about_ifoam/principles.
    ***For an explanation of the EU regulatory framework for organic agriculture, see http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/qual/organic/brochure/abio_en.pdf.
    ****For the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), see www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/standards.html.
    *****Cottonseed has much lower value (10%–15% of seed cotton value) than cotton fibre (85%–90%). The organic cottonseed resulting after ginning (about 55% of seed cotton weight) can also be traded as organic, for example for use as animal feed in the organic dairy industry.
    ******Examples are Remei (Switzerland; bioRe label) and OTTO (Germany; Pure Wear label).
    *******The Global Organic Textile Standards are summarized at www.global-standard.org.
    ********The OE Blended Standard 2005 is available at www.organicexchange.org.
    *********For a brief comparison of the EU Flower scheme and the Oeko-Tex scheme, see www.eco-forum.dk/textile-purchase/index_files/Page2303.htm.  

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    Cotton Exporter's Guide

    Brochure - African cotton promotion
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