NYT Recognizes “That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think”

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

When I’m in India, people often ask me to vet their textile purchases after the fact. They often brag that their newfound treasure is 100% pashmina or “organic cotton” – and quote a price paid that’s too good to be true. Guess what? It’s indeed too good to be true.

When one purchases jewellery from a reputable Indian jeweller, s/he’ll tell you exactly how much the piece weighs. So, if it’s supposed to be 18K gold, and the cost you’ve paid is less than the market price for that amount of gold, there’s a simple conclusion to be drawn.  The piece may may be a beautiful, but it ain’t 18K gold.

The same logic applies to textiles. The price of the final product must exceed the costs of inputs: raw materials and skilled labor. So, what do I do when asked if the person got a good deal? Well, I certainly don’t blurt out the whole truth. No one ever wants to hear s/he’s been ripped off. What I do say is: what a lovely piece? Do you like it? And then riff onward  from there.

If, however, someone asks me outright where to go to buy quality textiles, I first ask them what they’re looking for, and I try and tease out a budget. That information gives me an idea where I should direct them. For those looking to make a high-end purchase – pashmina, for example – I’ll steer them to one of three three family textile businesses. Over the last decade or so, I’ve been a guest of each family, either in Jaipur and Srinagar, in some cases making many visits. I’ve visited workshops, traveled with family members, met their weavers, and even bought some of their products.

People new to buying pashmina are unlikely to pick out the good stuff. How do I know? Because when I first started buying textiles, I got ripped off too. I trusted my fingers and bought “pashmina”  that felt sumptuous. I know now that however it was described, what I actually eceived was usually a 90% silk/pashmina mix, which feels softer than pure pashmina. Was I particularly credulous? Perhaps. Once one knows what quality raw material costs and appreciates what high-skilled labor is necessary to fashion a piece, one can roughly calculate when a price is indeed too good to be true. I didn’t, and I overpaid for my ignorance. By paying too little outright, I received even less in return.

I don’t feel abashed about confessing my mistakes. I know for a fact when a company well-known for its premium pashmina sends buyers to source textiles from one of the three families mentioned above – and which are then sold under its exclusive brand name – that company insists on DNA tests to confirm what’s being sold is indeed what’s claimed to be on offer.

Misrepresentation and outright fraud have been a problem in the pashmina market for centuries. Today, more “pashmina” is sold each year than is actually produced. Not to mention that lower-quality Chinese or Amritsari  fiber is passed off as the most coveted handspun, handwoven Kashmiri variety.

Call for a Consumer Class Action

Leaving aside the pashmina market for the moment, the Gray Lady yesterday woke up to the problem of ordinary textiles masquerading as something special in the burgeoning organic cotton market (see That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think):

Michael Kors retails its organic cotton and recycled polyester women’s zip-up hoodies for $25 more than its conventional cotton hoodies. Urban Outfitters sells organic sweatpants that are priced $46 more than an equivalent pair of conventional cotton sweatpants. And Tommy Hilfiger’s men’s organic cotton slim-fit T-shirt is $3 more than its conventional counterpart.

“This product contains independently certified organic cotton grown without chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds,” the product description reads.

With the fashion industry trumpeting its sustainability commitments, those labels are both a means of value signaling and a lure to consumers willing to pay more to act better.

There’s only one problem: Much of the “organic cotton” that makes it to store shelves may not actually be organic at all.

That’s a problem. I wondered whether the remedy outlined above for the luxury pashmina market – purchase only from reputable suppliers – might scale up to the much larger, fragmented world-wide mass market for cotton. Where, as in the pashmina market, fraud and misrepresentation is also rife.  Per the NYT:

The largest single producer of the world’s organic cotton supply is India, which accounts for half of the organic cotton sold globally, and where the organic cotton movement appears to be booming. According to Textile Exchange, a leading organic proponent, organic cotton production in India alone grew 48 percent in the last year, despite the pandemic.

However, much of this growth is fake, say Indians who source, process and grow organic cotton.

At the heart of the problem is an opaque certification system rife with opportunities for fraud. Consumers are assured of “organic” material by brands, which rely on official stamps of approval from external organizations. Those in turn rely on reports from opaque local inspection agencies that base their conclusions on a single planned yearly inspection (in the case of the facilities) or a few random visits (for farms).

In recent months, the credibility of these inspection agencies has been destroyed. In November, the European Union voted to no longer accept Indian organic exports certified by the main companies responsible for organic cotton: Control Union, EcoCert and OneCert. And in January, the international agency that provides accreditation to organic inspection agencies, IOAS, withdrew OneCert’s ability to inspect and certify cotton processors for these labels

The NYT does a good job in outlining problems. But it essentially throws up its hands and surrenders without offering clear solutions, I think because it’s not examining the problem properly.

Here, entrepreneurial U.S. class action lawyers might prod companies to ensure customers either receive organic cotton, or instead don’t pay an organic premium for ordinary cotton.

U.S. states have on their books statutes which protect consumers from companies engaging in unlawful or deceptive practices. They also provide for private rights of action – e.g., lawsuits – to enforce consumer protection objectives. States also allow individuals to band together and bring class action lawsuits.

Note that the pleading standard for pursuing such class actions is fairly loose. The entire game here is get a judge to certify a class in order to pursue a class action. If potential plaintiffs can get a class certified, they have an excellent chance of forcing companies to agree a settlement. Few defendants would want to see a class action go to trial,  a process that’s expensive and where the outcome is uncertain.

In a potential class action in the organic cotton realm, plaintiffs might allege that they bought organic cotton, and were sold a non-organic product. The damages a class might win could be substantial, based on the difference between the price of ordinary cotton products and organic ones, plus potential punitive damages.

Companies that currently sell “organic cotton” would be left with two possible options, going forward. One trail has been blazed by Eileen Fisher, a company that’s long been a leader on fashion sustainability issues (see The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion). Eileen Fisher has chosen to cease promoting certified  “organic cotton” entirely:

At least one brand has decided it no longer wants to look the other way, however. Though organic cotton used to be a centerpiece of its commitments, the women’s wear brand Eileen Fisher now has a page on its website describing why it is moving away from certified organic cotton, the better to address what the brand calls “an uncomfortable fact.”

“The ‘organic’ cotton that’s sold each year far exceeds the amount that is actually grown,” it says.

The second, more difficult path a fashion company might pursue would be to build relationships with particular farmers, starting from the source, and ensuring that the “organic cotton” they sell is indeed organically grow. Most “organic cotton” grown in India, or in other cotton production centers, including China and Turkey, is anything but and fashion companies must surely be aware of this fact. According to the NYT:

At this point, some industry insiders believe the only way for a brand to ensure its organic cotton is actually organic is to invest in farmers directly through credible organizations before any seed is even sown.

The NYT describes how the current system of organic certification and production has foundered, partly because middlemen siphon off excess profits that accrue from selling self-described organic products, rather than passing extra revenues to farmers.

Starting  with  the source – the organic farmer – and working forward, building verifiable organic cotton supply chains would mean abandoning or at minimum disentangling the complex network of supply chains that currently predominates. And perhaps in this case, India might lose its preeminent position in world cotton production. Indeed, some fashion companies  might well choose to source their organic cotton from farmers located closer to the ultimate markets for their textiles and apparel.

Or maybe not. After all, India has been producing and exporting cotton for a very long time. Millenia, as a matter of fact, as mentioned by Herodotus, Cicero, and Pliny the Elder (see, e.g., The story of a plant called cotton & a pioneer named India). That tradition won’t simply vanish and fashion companies might find it easier to improve supply chains that start in India rather than build such networks anew.

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  1. Larry Carlson

    The same problem exists with olive oil imported from Mediterranean countries – even costly, high end products may have batches of fake olive oil blended in (olive oil diluted or replaced with cheaper oils, sometimes disguised with coloring or flavoring). When something is grown and processed in relatively small batches, which are later combined in the manufacturing or distribution processes, then only the most obvious adulteration will be caught without regular, costly testing.

    This is one of the reasons I stick to California olive oil – perhaps California farmers can look into growing organic cotton, too?

      1. JohnA

        I can certainly vouch for the olive oil sold in my local markets in the south of France. Years ago, there was an oil scandal in Spain, where door to door salespersons sold oil that turned out to be a health hazard and led to serious health problems for some of the people who bought the oil. But things have been tightened up since then.
        In these days of buy local, I do not see why California would need to import Mediterranean olive oil, if it can grow its own, and vice versa.

    1. Matthew G. Saroff

      No. Growing cotton in California would be a disaster. It is a very thirsty plant in an area that was overusing water before the currently decades long drought.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Agreed. Recall what cotton cultivation did to the Aral Sea, which IIRC as of 1960, was the world’s fourth largest lake. No longer.

  2. TimH

    I’m confused… wikipedia says pashmina is goat wool, not cotton.

    Pashmina refers to a fine variant of spun cashmere, the animal-hair fibre forming the downy undercoat of the Changthangi goat.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Pashmina is notorious as a high quality product that is so valuable the market is flooded with fakes. Jerri-Lynn is using it as a small scale example of the difficulty in cleaning up textile supply chains. If you can’t do it with a niche product like pashmina, you won’t be able to do it with a mass market product like cotton.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        That’s exactly the comparison I was trying to make. I added a few words to the paragraph beginning “That’s a problem. I wondered whether the remedy outlined above for the luxury pashmina market…” to sharpen the point.

        Thanks for your comments, TimH and PlutoniumKun.

        1. TimH

          It’s the 2nd sentence… ‘They often brag that their newfound treasure is 100% pashmina or “organic cotton”’. It read to me as an explanation that pashmina = organic cotton.

          1. John Zelnicker

            TimH – I did the same thing on first reading, but the alternate meaning is just as logical and it eventually occurred to me as I continued reading the post.

            Reading it as equivalent makes no sense once you read further.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Unfortunately, without sound certification systems, the only trustworthy products are those where the manufacturers can trace a direct line from the grower to the consumer. Only a small handful of companies can do this, and the inevitable result is very expensive. I think Patagonia is the only major consumer brand that really tries hard at to achieve this.

    The alternative are well funded high quality certification systems, but its hard to see how these can succeed without a very high level of investment. You need a lot of manpower to track cotton, or any other product, from the plant to the t-shirt (although arguably there are advanced scientific tests that can do the same job). But you can’t escape the reality that the end result are clothes that are far more expensive than we are used to getting in our local shops, and not just fast fashion ones.

    The big problem of course is that stories of this lead to widespread cynicism (often justified), and so those companies that genuinely try to make their products better get caught in the crossfire. There are a number of shoe brands now that focus on social/environmental awareness, but unless you devote a lot of time to detective work, its hard to find out which ones are genuine and which are brainwashing. To make it worse, some companies that started out good end up being taken over by bigger brands or hedge funds and then progressively crapified. This seems to be happening with Allbirds.

    I think most people want to buy ‘clean’ products, but labelling is so confusing that the overwhelming majority of people don’t have the knowledge base to make the right decisions. So the only way out of the conundrum is regulation. You either have it, or you don’t, there is no libertarian answer to this problem.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I agree with your points. The end result of either better tracing on the part of manufacturers or well-funded, high quality certification system is that organic clothes will be more expensive.

      Another issue I didn’t touch upon in this post is that modern cotton is a notoriously thirsty fiber. IIRC this is less so for organic varieties than for the standard non-organic ones, although exact details are a bit muddy. One alternative might be to revive traditional, less thirsty strains of kala cotton, as the Khamir NGO is doing. Although the initiative shows promise, scaling it up to meet world cotton demand would be a challenge. Plus the fiber produced – although beautiful – is coarse and nubby and can’t be woven into something suitable to fashion into a smooth t-shirt.

      I wrote about this initiative previously in 2021, see Growing Cotton: One Small Sustainable Solution to the World Plastics Problem.

      1. John Zelnicker

        It would be wonderful if we could get the cotton growers down here in the Deep South to start growing organically.

        In Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia it’s King Cotton. There are several cotton farms around here that appear to be small operations that possibly could be persuaded to change to organic methods if they were assured of a market.

        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          The first time I saw cotton growing in a field was in Alabama, when my parents took us on a road trip to visit relatives then living in IIRC Birmingham. My uncle was an Air Force officer and he was posted there.

          1. John Zelnicker

            Jerri-Lynn Scofield – It would have been Montgomery if he was in the Air Force.

            Maxwell Air Force Base is one of the largest in the South and a major flight training center for pilots.

            I don’t think Birmingham has any significant military facilities.

            1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

              Yes, you’re right, it was Montgomery. I remember being told he was attending “war college”. Uncle Tom was for several years an Air Force pilot.

              Birmingham may have mistakenly popped into my head b/c I have a cousin who’s lived there with his family for decades and practices law there.

  4. drumlin woodchuckles

    The same basic methods which American farmers such as Gabe Brown, Garry Zimmer, etc. use to grow petrochem-free non-toxic non-GMO grain in America could also be used by American cotton farmers to grow petrochem-free non-toxic non-GMO cotton in America.

    In point of historical fact, American cotton farmers ( actually their forced-labor slaves) used to grow mass-industrial quantities of purely organic cotton right here in this country right up till the Civil War. How do we know it was “organic”? Because there were no petrochemicals and there was no GMO at that time ( right up until 1860). “Organic” was the default-only-method in existence.

    Could American cotton farmers again grow Certifiably Organic cotton again in the present day? Bio-agronomically speaking, yes, and of the same mainstream varieities grown right up till the Civil War.
    Politically-economically/ socially speaking, no, because Free Trade is designed to force foreign anti-organic fraud-cotton into the American market at prices below what the American grower could ever sell at, in order to force the American grower out of business, or back onto the petrochemical GMO plantation.

    Unless America can remove itself from the Free Trade Corporate Globalonial Plantation, and re-introduce rigid militant belligerent protectionism around every level of its cotton sector, from field to rack-in-the-store, there will be no such thing as fraud-free Organic cotton reliably available within the borders of the United States.

    Most people lead painfully busy lives and are not in a position to engage in elaborate lawsuits against world-level teams of sophisticated lawyers who are trained in the legal arts of bending every law till it cracks without quite breaking. ” The law” is no remedy for ordinary people and it probably never will be in a Free Trade environment. Factor in the fact that these same teams of lawyers work with other teams of legislation-purchase personnel to buy laws like ” contains organic cotton” may legally be called ” organic cotton”. All they have to do is buy a law or regulation saying that ” contains one per cent organic cotton” will be legally defined as “contains organic cotton” which will be legally defined as ” organic cotton”.

    If I want something made out of organic cotton, I won’t even bother looking at things imported here from our foreign trading enemies. I would look into grown-in-America strictly and only, and if no such thing exists, I would accept that for me, no such thing as “organic” cotton exists at all.

    Here is a link to something purporting to be Made In America organic cotton product.

    Here is a link to an article about organic cotton production within the borders of the United States. The amount produced seems to me to be derisorily tiny and vanishingly small. The only way to increase the amount of organic cotton growable in America would be to ban the import of any cotton whatsoever of any type from every single one of our foreign trading enemies. That would create a cotton-vacuum which the domestic organic cotton grower could perhaps hope to partially fill. Anyway, here is the link.

    ( I would accept that article’s figures about the amount of organic cotton grown in America. But “organic cotton” grown in China? Full of lead paint and fertilized with the blood of Uyghurs? How “organic” can it be if it comes from China? I would suggest that ” Chinese organic” is French for “not organic at all”.)

    Trade is War.
    Free Trade is the New Slavery.
    Protectionism is the New Abolition.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      You focus on cotton farming but I’d like to add also that imported textiles and apparel killed the domestic U.S. textiles and apparel industry, which was still thriving during the beginning of my lifetime. First a short-term multilateral textile agreement, then moving on to at least one long term one, then the Kennedy Round of GATT negotiations followed by subsequent additional international trade talks, opened the gates to foreign products. At the time JFK became president, IIRC, 1 out of 8 American jobs was still located in the textile or apparel industry.

      I believe – although he’s no longer around for me to ask him – that my father’s first job was in a textile mill in Paterson, NJ, before he joined the Navy and after that, availed himself of GI Bill benefits and became a teacher.

      I’m not sure bringing cotton production back home offers a complete solution, however. For starters, who’s to say U.S. farmers won’t pull some of the same stunts that are currently widespread elsewhere. Just look at what big Ag has done to food production: glyphosate, anyone?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        The truth-in-certification of organic cotton can be determined within the borders of the United States in a way that it will never be determinable in foreign countries, especially black-hat bad-actors like China.

        If one wants any hope of cotton labeled as certified organic to actually be certified organic, it has to be grown where such certification can be trusted. Petrochemical GMO mainstream cotton growers will not go organic in any case. But grown-in-America cotton growers claiming to be certified organic can at least be surveilled to see if they really are. And banning all cotton from overseas would create a big enough market-vacuum within the US needing to be filled from within the US that some of that vacuum could be filled by US certified cotton growers growing certified organic cotton going into garments made here. Currently , many seekers after organic cotton are paying a shinola price for fraud-ganic sh*t cotton from overseas. If such cotton were cut off as part of a general total import ban on all foreign cotton, then the seekers-of-organic-cotton would have nowhere to buy it from but here. And certified organic American cotton growers would be able to grow more than what they can grow now.

        Within the American context, of course mainstream cotton growers would pull the same GMO and glyphosate stunts that mainstream American everything-else farmers pull. But the organic and eco-bio-correct American farmers of everything else are not pulling those stunts. They are working to expand the no-stunts no-toxins no-GMO farming sector. And organic and eco-bio-correct wannabe cotton farmers would do the same thing. The grown-in-America cotton sector would produce its Gabe Browns and Gary Zimmers and Mark Shephards just as the non-cotton farming sector already has.

        And the same would be true for any farmed fiber.

        Free Trade Abolition would not solve all problems. But the presence of Free Trade means not one single problem will ever be solved, not even the smallest, not in the slightest. Free Trade Abolition is the necessary precondition for America reconquering the economic sovereignty needed to even begin addressing these fake-organic cotton problems, or any other such problem.

  5. Sara K.

    I once bought some organic cotton products from a factory outlet which said that the source of all their organic cotton was a cooperative of organic cotton farmers in Texas (they named the organization, I just forget the exact name), and they had copies of the USDA organic certificates. However, I don’t know enough about this to know whether it’s plausible this could be an elaborate fake (though at least they went above just labeling the cotton ‘organic’ without any additional supply chain information).

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Its a fair question. If the American organic certification process is just as fraud-based as the Chinese organic certification system, then there is no way for anyone to know. Is our system as fraud-based? Is the culture of American agriculture as fraud-based?

      There is no way I or anyone else can go down their and do our own research to see if this co-op is an elaborate fraud or a cover for dirty cotton laundering. So it comes down to trust . . . does any trust remain?

      Are American organic movements all part of the fraud or its blind helpless dupes?

      I hope that if this co-op were fraud-ganic, they would have been exposed and debunked somewhere in the organic-agro-press. Just as I hope that if Gabe Brown or Gary Zimmer are actually running an elaborate long-running hoax, that they would have been exposed and debunked for it. So far they haven’t been. I choose to trust that means they are legitimate in what they say and do. All one can do is trust that Texas organic cotton co-op to be equally legitimate in what they say or do because they have not been debunked and exposed by now as being fraudulent.

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