Looking at “Sustainable Cotton” – Patagonia is a Well-Known Pioneer

Posted on June 13, 2024 by Keira Campbell – Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern – G&A Institute

#Circular System #Climate Change #Environmental Protection #Supply Chain 

By Keira Campbell – Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern – G&A Institute

For decades, the apparel and textiles industry has heavily relied on conventional cotton which necessitates significant use of agricultural chemicals such as pesticides that pose severe threats to the health of our planet and its soils due to the scale at which cotton is produced.

In recent years, however, a notable shift has occurred at many companies in the apparel and textiles industry, as they have begun transitioning from conventional cotton to organic cotton.

Organic cotton cultivation embraces sustainable agriculture practices such as cover crops, rotational crops, and entomopathogens (a method of natural pest control). Organic cotton practices have proven to reduce cotton’s carbon dioxide emissions and increase carbon sequestration while saving 91% in water use.

While the adoption of organic cotton does entail a premium price, both companies and farmers often find this investment worthwhile. This is because the same land can sustain organic cotton cultivation for significantly longer periods compared to conventional cotton, enhancing the overall return on investment for both parties.

Industry Standards Regarding Organic Cotton

From 2018 to 2019, the harvesting of organic cotton saw a 31% increase, and it has only continued to grow since then. With this growth, the apparel and textiles industry is increasingly shifting towards the use of organic cotton. With this shift comes standards that are used to certify processors, manufacturers, and traders of organic cotton.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the leading textile processing standard, offering certifications across multiple scopes to detail the extent to which entities adhere to the standard. Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization that works with the apparel and textile industry, also has a voluntary standard called the Organic Content Standard (OCS).

This approach incentivizes farmers to verify their organic content claims so they can communicate their organic farming practices to the industry. Textile Exchange’s standards expect cotton to be verified at each level of the supply for maximum credibility. With increased organic cotton production, it is also important that farmers see a corresponding increase in demand. As more companies begin to produce their inventory with organic materials, an increasing amount of cotton farming will be done using organic methods that are more sustainable for our planet.

Patagonia’s Transition Toward Organic Cotton

Patagonia, a prominent brand specializing in outdoor clothing and gear, stands at the forefront of the organic cotton movement. The company’s transition away from conventional cotton began shortly after 1988  , prompted by health concerns among employees at their Boston store who were affected by fumes emitted directly from the clothing.

After investigating this incident, it was revealed that conventional cotton — which Patagonia used at the time — was responsible for 22.5% of chemical insecticides but only took up 2.5% of global cultivated land use. In the coming years, Patagonia began creating their own organic cotton supply chain, and after much trial and error has achieved the admirable goal of sourcing entirely organic cotton for all its products.

Patagonia is promoting a transition toward organic cotton through their initiative called Cotton for Change, in which the theme is:  “saying no to conventional cotton”. Throughout their transformative journey towards organic cotton, Patagonia has made it a priority to educate others about the negative impacts of conventional cotton while highlighting the positive outcomes of adopting organic cotton.

Their commitment to sustainability on a grassroots level has catalyzed research and development efforts that have resulted in sustainable clothing designs that had never before been possible. These designs have not only positioned Patagonia as an innovator but are also opening doors to new possibilities for other clothing companies looking to follow in their footsteps.

In an industry where experimenting with new modes of production is often met with hesitation, Patagonia embraced the risks associated with this experimentation and has greatly succeeded. Their approach is just one of many shifts taking place today in the apparel and textile industry, but they are a great example of how the industry continues to show demand for more organic cotton production.

Keira Campbell – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

Keira Campbell is an analyst-intern at G&A Institute. Keira is currently attending the University of Texas at Austin where she is studying Geography and Sustainability Studies with a concentration in Natural Resource Management and a minor in Applied Economics. Keira is pursuing a career in corporate sustainability and is particularly interested in sustainable investment in the agriculture industry.   She is a key member of the team preparing the G&A Institute 2024 Trends analysis of corporate sustainability reporting in 2023 by Russell 1000 companies.