By Sarah Portway
Sarah Portway has 10 years of fashion industry experience as both a retailer and educator. She has earned a Master’s Degree in Fashion from Ryerson University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Art from the University of Guelph. Portway has also been honored with several prestigious awards, notably including a current Doctoral Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Portway is undertaking her Ph.D. in Apparel Design at Cornell University and expects to graduate in 2018.
There is a growing market for organic, fair-trade, vegan, natural, not-tested-on-animals, do-good, and sometimes green-washed products. These products proudly boast the promise of “responsible consumerism” from their shelves to sooth the pain of the 10% premium we are usually willing to pay. But what’s behind these labels? It’s been shown repeatedly that most consumers don’t know. This diatribe will describe why some producers don’t know either, and how their ignorance is keeping them out of the competitive market for these products.
For our purposes, I will call a consumer who makes purchasing decisions based on certifications and other eco-labeling a ‘green consumer.’ Green is a colour, not a behavior, but let’s put that aside for now due to the brevity of this post. Everyone else is doing it. Green consumers are shopping for what they think are more environmentally or socially ‘responsible’ products. They assess this instantaneously based on labeling which attempts to communicate a myriad of ‘responsible’ criteria from labourer’s wages to waste management. Given this range, let’s also isolate organic cotton apparel labels for a closer inspection, also in the name of brevity.
If we can cautiously sample a dash of theory from Cornell University economist Dr. Robert Frank (The Darwin Economy), and accept that individual and group actions often diverge, organic cotton seems like it would be rather self-evidently for the ‘greater good.’ If this were true, we could spare the next 600 words (or so); we can’t. Herein lies to crux of this argument: what has been marketed as a ‘responsible’ product that benefits the group through lowered pesticide use, actually prioritizes individual (read: American) cotton interests over the rights of organic farmers who lack fiscal resources and English education. Since group and individual actions diverge, organic cotton certification isn’t exemplary of Frank’s good-for-the-group.
On the white, fluffy face of it, organic cotton has promise. It promises to avoid contamination of land and water. It promises longer-term, slow-and-steady crop yields in lieu of unsustainable rapid over-growth which bleeds the soil of vital nutrients in mono-crop practices. These are all good promises for the group (human kind). All you need to show you’ve made this noble contribution to the group is a brightly coloured and easily recognized certification label on the product. That’s the value of your product for the green consumer: differentiation through labeling, when other things remain equal. Imagine the over-used and tired example of the infamous plain-white cotton t-shirt, one bears a ‘certified organic’ label and one does not. That label is the one chance you get to tell this customer that you made your cotton ‘green’, just for them. Just for everyone.
Pietra Rivoli is a professor of finance and international business in the McDonough School of Business, at Georgetown University. Leafing through her pioneering text Travels of T-Shirt Through the Global Economy forces the question: what about fair competition? Poor countries should have an advantage in the organic cotton business. Organic cotton is more labor intensive than conventionally grown because of the use of mechanical pest control over chemical. The United States has higher wages than Africa (for example), ergo Africa should be able to compete in this market. Perhaps more importantly in the African context, the farmers were already growing organically because of financial barriers prohibiting access to pesticides and herbicides. These are far too costly for your average small African farmer. So are the defoliants; cotton was already hand-picked (a sign of higher quality in the world of fashionable goods). As Rivoli rightly points out, Africa will be left out of this product-positioning arms race also.
Getting organic certification isn’t easy and it is extremely costly. If some African farmers had a hard time affording pesticides to save a year’s crop, they will find it absolutely impossible to afford third-party organic certification. Counter-intuitively, in addition to having more labor and water inputs, organic cotton also costs money to certify. The certification itself must be mostly a marketing mechanism because some farmers are organic without the label, but well-intentioned green consumers have been trained to look for these labels. No label means no trust, therefore no 10% premium price hike will be paid (which probably just barely pays for the farmer’s cost of certification anyhow). Even the green consumers’ noble attempts at supporting small organic African farms will be thwarted by the lack of labeling on these products. Therefore, the very regulation limiting the freedom to use pesticides, which was supposed to be good-for-the-group, will necessarily fall short of that goal. Instead, it is just another market mechanism preventing green consumers from reaching responsible products. It serves the individual (wealthy, subsidized American cotton) interests.
This point is salient enough, but I will add some more threads to the weave. Organic certification bodies use English. Or at least, they use some form of English. The English used in the certification forms and regulations is so convoluted it is difficult for even native English speakers to read. In fact (and somewhat embarrassingly), it was even difficult for a Ph.D. student at an American Ivy League school to decode. These forms require a reading level that is a challenge for even the most educated. I’ve done some light gardening, and from experience (if you’ll allow some comedic respite) I’m certain that reading ability does not influence a farmer’s ability in the field. A farmer may have the best crop of premium organic cotton you’ve ever seen, lush and fluffy, white as a cloud, even the name “Round-Up” may never have been breathed in the same county as this prestigious cotton, but the green consumer is never going to find it if the farmer cannot read, or if they can’t afford someone to read for them.
This attempt at policy in the name of the group good falls short. It costs the individuals at a low end of the global income gap, the very people your average green consumer thinks they are supporting with their ‘responsible’ purchases. If you can’t read, apparently you can’t farm either… or at least you’ll never be able to compete with English-reading cotton farmers. This still-developing policy is a wolf in sheep’s clothes, all puns intended. It protects the body of English-reading global cotton farmers, while leaving the rest of the world out in the cold. In the heat of the African sun where farmers will always be too poor to pollute, but too ignorant to communicate it, it’s always going to be a cold market.
Until we describe a better policy.... but that’s going to need another 30,000 words or so.