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Organic Cotton has a long way to go in Latin America

By Christin Parcerisa


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Everyday we see more global brands, like H&M, Inditex, or Nike, present new lines created with organic cotton. However, the product has yet to expand in terms of an increase in demand, global production, and awareness from consumers about clothes with sustainable production.

The concept of organic cotton refers to those productions that follow a model of organic farming, consisting of protecting lands - preventing erosion, maintaining fertility, and avoiding the use of toxic chemicals that harm both the land and the local fauna. Among the requirements to guarantee responsible and self-stabilizing farming there’s crop rotation, fertilizing soil with animal manure, weed management by hand, and insect control with bio-pesticides. On top of that, genetically modified seeds are forbidden. Additionally, this concept aims for a production system that reduces the impact third parties might have on farmers, so they can make use of their own resources, reduce pollution, and increase fair trade.

This type of farming follows the philosophy that the protection of the land, biodiversity, natural cycles, and of the farmers is more important than massive production. For cotton to be considered organic it must have been produced under these agriculture standards and must have been certified by a regulatory agency, such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). These institutions were born from the necessity to control the excessive use of pesticides and to ensure low farming prices. It has been over thirty years since the number or organizations dedicated to the protection and promotion of organic cotton started to grow, and that has derived in an increasing amount of offer.

Yet the yearly Organic Cotton Market Report by Textile Exchange shows that nowadays there’s 302,562 hectares of certified land, and 219,947 farmers worldwide. Eighteen countries in the world produce organic cotton, and 97 percent of that production is centered in only seven countries in the eastern hemisphere, particularly in India, with 56 percent of the production, and China, with 14 percent.

Despite having an important history in cotton production, none of the top 7 producing countries belong to Latin America. Nonetheless, growth opportunities in this industry are ample, due to the diversity of ecosystems and of markets that are combined throughout the region. Recently, some countries have started to take advantage of these opportunities, mostly Brazil and Peru, followed by Argentina, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Nowadays, there are eleven programs created by Textile Exchange in these countries dedicated to the promotion of farming of this fiber, since the region only contributes 0.39 percent of the total global production.

Land of opportunities

As a textile producer of high end hammocks, Alexander Grisar was looking for organic cotton in Latin America when he decided to create SOCiLA in 2018, a non profit dedicated to the promotion of production of this fiber in the region. Until now, SOCiLA has carried out an important amount of research and has encouraged farms to switch into organic cotton, as well as motivated more people to make use of the favorable lands of the region.

Within the several studies carried out by SOCiLA it has been pointed out that in the last 20 years production of organic cotton has raised from 7,482 tons to 140,000 tons per year, but the production in Latin America has only increased from 1,046 to 1,233.

In an interview with FashionUnited, Alexander Grisar, founder of SOCiLA, explains that there’s no simple answer to explain the reasons that have slowed down production in the region: “Personally I do, however, feel that the American subsidiaries of its own cotton cropping might have been a decisive factor. Only Brazil fought against these subsidies by putting the case to the World Trade Organization. And, in fact, Brazil’s cotton cropping sector is very successful in the region today while cotton production drastically decreased in nearly all other countries since the 1970s”, Grisar says.

It’s estimated that the consumption of organic cotton made products has increased globally almost 70 percent, reaching almost 1.6 billion dollars (Textile Exchange). About this topic, Grisar explains that: “these days demand for organic cotton apparel is mainly increasing in the US and Europe, and there is presently a consent on the fact that there will be a global shortage of organic cotton supply in the years to come.”

The latter, are some of the reasons why SOCiLA is aiming to encourage more emerging countries to utilize this fiber. The entrepreneur considers that there are many opportunities for LATAM in this industry, since several countries in the region have been producers and exporters of regular cotton for decades, there are well established apparel and textile industries, and there’s been an increase in local renown designers in search for this kind of product. In addition, he highlights during the interview that there’s an advantage to having the United States so close geographically, because it accelerates exportation specially for fast fashion brands, and reduces costs, an opportunity particularly attractive for Mexico.

The expert underlines that Peru knows how to take advantage of the opportunities organic cotton has. The production of this fiber in the country began during the early nineties, in 1994 it even represented 17.6 percent of global production. Although this number has been reduced, Peru remains the leader in the region, with ample rainwater, small farms that use a wide diversity of seeds, and cooperation among farmers thanks to development programs.

Within the region’s challenges, the non profit focuses on some country specific data. There are over 100,000 hectares of fertile land in El Salvador that during the seventies was used to grow cotton; in Mexico, fields dedicated to cotton were cut down from 500,000 hectares to 100,000 hectares; the same happened in Colombia, reducing lands from 300,000 to 30,000; and in Nicaragua from 200,000 to 2,000. Many of these countries have a well-established textile industry that lost power with time. However, the growing demand for organic cotton represents a second wind for these nations, with more farms joining the trend of sustainable farming as we speak.

This article was originally written for FashionUnited.ES. Translated and Edited by Justine Browning.

Photo credit: Pixabay.com