While investigating our sustainable manufacturing feature, Apparel was told that there is more organic fabric sold each year than is grown globally. We wanted to investigate further and find statistics which verified this. Our source pointed us in the right direction, and we contacted a prominent fabric merchant to find out more about the situation. When he refused to speak to us, we felt there was more to be uncovered, and began speaking to other people within the industry to get to the heart of the issue.

John Rainger Textiles, one of New Zealand’s leading wholesale fabric merchants, sources no organic fabrics. A spokesman from John Rainger Textiles explained the reason behind the lack of organic fabrics is the difficulty faced in authentication. “Being a merchant, we want to know when we say something is organic, that it is organic, we don’t want to deceive anyone or be deceived ourselves”. Several fabric agents had previously approached John Rainger Textiles with fabrics that they claimed were organic, and “the channel went quiet” when John Rainger Textiles asked for certification. In other instances, when paperwork was produced, John Rainger Textiles was dubious about whether they were being shown doctored certificates of authentication. “The problem is the extended supply chain. It’s a struggle for a small fabric merchant in New Zealand to follow back their supply chain because it is such a large channel from the moment the fabric is planted to when it reaches our warehouses. Unless you trace the fabric all the way back, it’s impossible to verify if it is organic - and it’s easy for people to doctor paperwork. For a large, vertically integrated company it would be simpler to look back to the fabric mill or plantation and maintain a transparent supply chain, but we really struggle.” That’s not to say that John Rainger Textiles believes all organic fabrics are mislabeled. Some fabric agents who had offered organic fabrics and been able to produce authentication were legitimate. However, in these circumstances fabrics were offered at a very high price and John Rainger Textiles thought these prices would be unsustainable in the New Zealand market, so passed up on the opportunity. “A number of fabric makers have gone from labelling their fabrics ‘organic’ to labelling them ‘eco-friendly’. This means the fabric has been sustainably harvested but doesn’t meet the full requirements of organic labelling” explained John Rainger Textiles’ spokesman. “This makes it a little easier for the manufacturers, as they don’t have to meet every specification, but can have some environmentally friendly aspects.” When asked if John Rainger Textiles’ spokesman believed the claim that there was more organic fabric being sold globally than grown, he said it was “absolutely believable. Cotton is a natural fibre, but it is necessary to add things - pesticides, herbicides - to grow it in commercial quantities. It’s the same with any commercialised good grown from a natural source. But the world can’t survive without its commercial goods, and we turn a blind eye because we like our comforts.”

Kowtow have made waves in the New Zealand fashion industry, with their focus on fair trade and organic textiles. Apparel spoke to Emma Wallace, Head of Creative Operations, at Kowtow about their organic certification. Kowtow’s organic cotton all carries the Global Organic Textile Standard, which is a recognised international standard which critiques the entire production process starting after the harvest (the harvest and growth up to that point are covered by the National Organic Process standards). “We have a long-term relationship with our growers. We’ve been working with them for ten years now, so have sustained our relationships, and have no difficulty with ensuring they only produce organic cotton” says Wallace. “We are launching our first denim range this August, and it has taken over a year to source and bring to market organic denim pieces, so it isn’t all easy, but sustained relationships and transparency are a big help.” For other designers wanting to ensure their fabrics are organic, Wallace advises they should look for the Global Organic Textile certification, and ask to see a current certificate. 

Although we were unable to find a definitive answer, this claim was an eye-opening one, and points to a serious problem for the fashion industry. While well-meaning designers or buyers may want to buy authentic cotton, a skeptical approach may not go amiss.