Organic Cotton: Shortages, Fraud and Green Washing

Before I started CastleWare Baby I owned a small cut and sew shop specializing in garments made from knitted fabrics. Most of my clients were small-brand owners who worked exclusively with organic cotton for their women's yoga and loungewear lines. This was back in the mid-‘90s when organic cotton fabrics were hard to source and the selection was very small, limited to natural (undyed) for the most part. The price per yard was generally double what conventionally grown cotton cost at the time. The fabrics were knitted in the U.S., primarily in Southern California and the Carolinas.

Because organic cotton fabric was so much more expensive, all of the brands that worked with it back then were micro brands, owned by people dedicated to the concept of healthy, sustainable farming practices and clean manufacturing; businesses which put people and the planet above huge profits. 

As the owner of a shop that actually performed its own manufacturing, I was happy to be working with organic cotton. It not only reduced my exposure to toxic chemicals but also that of my employees. We all felt safer and we never had to worry about breathing caustic fumes, a very real concern for textile workers worldwide. I also loved the fact that the fabrics didn’t have any nasty chemical finishes on them; we could handle the material without worrying about exposure to carcinogens. 

Years later, when I decided to design and manufacture my own brand, using the finest, 100 percent organic cotton was a no-brainer for me. I knew there was just no way I could work with anything other than organic fabrics. This decision meant that my startup costs and my ongoing material costs were going to be higher. Add to this the fact that most of my fabrics were, and still are, made in California, the most highly regulated state in the union, and you have a recipe for pricing yourself right out of the market. 

Admittedly, it hasn’t been easy-going. In the early years all of us in the organic cotton clothing industry worked tirelessly on outreach and education, addressing why organic cotton was so valuable; why it was worth spending more for garments made with it and why it was important to lower chemical exposure for your children. The customer base in the early years was small, but equally passionate about supporting a positive change in the dirty-clothing industry. These were the early adopters of quality over quantity, voting for change with their dollars.

Over the years, as word spread about the damage many consumer products were doing to ourselves and our planet, more and more people looked towards purchasing organic and sustainably made products. The internet did it’s magic to spread the word, and soon the average consumer was willing to spend a little more for peace of mind. Suddenly everyone was in the game. 

Big box retailers and mainstream fashion labels started offering its products in organic cotton at a fraction of the price we old-timers could. Hmmm, it made us all wonder. How do they do it? Did higher-volume purchasing award them lower prices? Sure, that was part of it. But that alone couldn’t explain the ridiculously low pricing we were seeing throughout the world for some organic cotton products. It brought to mind the old adages “if it seems too good to be true then it most likely is” and “buyer beware.”

Oddly enough, over the course of the past 10 years the amount of organic cotton sold each year has far exceeded the amount actually grown. The simple truth is that growing organic cotton is hard. Yields are smaller than conventionally grown cotton, so there had to be other incentives enticing farmers to convert to organic. They need to be fairly compensated. This raises the cost of the cotton yarn, which raises the cost of the fabric, which raises the cost of the finished product. We all pay a premium so we want to be sure we are receiving what we are paying extra for. 

The subject of organic cotton fraud in the marketplace is finally getting some press in major media outlets. I’ve been worried sick about it for years as I’ve watched more and more greenwashing occur throughout the industry. Not only has this made it increasingly harder for me to compete, but I’ve worried it would ruin the credibility of the industry for those of us selling quality organic clothing. Even for those of us who have old, well-established and vetted supply chains, the verdict is still out. Only time will tell. …

While my business is not nearly large enough to be a major player in the industry and directly support an organic farm to produce cotton exclusively for CastleWare Baby, I can proudly say that I have been using the same group of fabric suppliers for the past 30 years. These are reputable suppliers who have stood up to the test of time and have a solid track record for accountability. The regulations for importing raw materials, especially cotton, into the United States are very strict, while the regulations for finished goods are entirely different. 

All of CastleWare Baby’s products are cut and sewn in the USA with fabric that is also knitted here. The companies that knit our fabrics source the yarn in both the U.S. and abroad. All the yarn has to carry with it a GOTS-certification, which is the gold standard of the industry. I believe in organic farming practices and will stay committed to the industry’s growth. 

Working together we can increase transparency and bring back trust. I don’t know what the future holds for the organic cotton clothing industry, but I can assure you that I will stay on top of my suppliers and do everything in my power to make sure my fabrics are always made with certified 100 percent pure, clean organic cotton. 

New York Times, That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think. Feb. 13, 2022