Textiles are one of the most important product groups in the promotional products industry. However, hardly any other product area raises more ecological and ethical questions – one of them: the effects the cultivation and processing have on the environment.
Around 2 billion T-shirts are sold around the world every year. Cotton is the most important raw material for the clothes industry – around half of the garments produced every year are made out of the fibre, it is undisputedly the most important material in the promotion wear sector. At the same time, there is no other field crop, whose cultivation causes more damage to the worldwide ecosystem than cotton. The cultivation and further processing of the plant are a considerable burden on the environment in some cases to a catastrophic extent. In order to produce one kilogramme of cotton, depending on the cultivation method and region between 7,000 and 30,000 l of water are needed. The cultivation of the extremely thirsty plants consumes as much water worldwide as all private households around the globe put together – water that is pumped out of the groundwater, rivers or lakes. The Aral Sea, up until a few decades ago the fourth largest lake in the world, has almost dried out today due to the excessive water extraction – the cotton cultivation is to “blame” for the largest natural catastrophe caused by man. However, the revelry with the precious water in times of global water shortage is not only causing damage to mankind and nature, but also tangible political conflicts. And that is not all: Cotton is mostly cultivated as a single crop without the crop rotation that is necessary for the ecosystem and the regeneration of the soil. Instead the ground is heavily fertilised and thus really damaged. Not to forget the chemicals that are implemented for pest control, without which 80% of the harvest would perish in the densely planted monocultures. Because the cotton plant is especially attractive for pests and germs it is thus bombarded with chemicals more than any other agricultural plant. Cotton fields account for around 2.4% of the arable land worldwide, on which however 11% of all available insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and defoliants are used. In just one season a cotton field is treated with toxins between 14 and 30 times. In order to grow cotton for one single Tshirt around 150 g toxins are sprayed.
The ecological balance of organically cultivated cotton is a lot better: Organic farmers don’t use pesticides, artificial fertilisers, defoliants or genetically modified seeds. They carry out crop rotation and thus not only actively do something towards the soil quality and ecosystem, but also their own living standard, because they are selfsufficient regarding their own food supplies and don’t have to purchase them at expensive prices. According to the non-governmental organisation, Textile Exchange, 80% of the cultivated areas for cotton are irrigated using rainwater. “Organic cotton requires less irrigated water than conventionally grown cotton and is in some cases exclusively rain-fed, in Tanzania for instance,” stated Prama Bhardwaj, founder and CEO of Mantis World. The London-based company specialises in sustainably produced promotional fashion. According to own accounts, Mantis not only offers the largest collection of baby clothes in the European promotional products industry, but also a large selection of promotion wear that is made out of sustainable fibres such as 100% organic cotton and Tencel®. “When we founded our company in the year 2000, there was a big gap in the market that we wanted to close,” explained Bhardwaj. “At the time there were hardly any textile companies on the promotional market that were committed to fashionable, high quality clothing and ethical principles – and the few existing companies only offered a limited collection of items.”
The market for products made of cotton has increased strongly since then: According to Textile Exchange, in 2014 116,974 megatonnes were produced, thus the production rose by 10% compared to 2013. Alone in the USA, 15.7 bil. Dollars (approx. 13.9 bil. Euros) were turned over with organic cotton products. The retail trade is naturally the driving force and it may surprise some people that the list of the top buyers is headed by the big discounters: According to Textile Exchange, C&A is the biggest buyer in terms of volume, followed by H&M, Tchibo, Decathlon and Nike. In view of the high overall volume, the absolute share of organic cotton of the respective line-ups of these groups is however comparably low. The situation is different when one looks at the group of small specialists and labels, that specialise in “Organic Fashion“ – with the focus lying on “Fashion”. “Regardless of how high the level of ethical awareness is: Nobody buys a product purely because it is sustainable,” commented Bhardwaj. “It has to be of high quality and be up-to-date in terms of its style and cut and it also has to suit the brand. The product is what sells itself – not the fact that it is ecological and ethically correct.” And even if organic fashion is in the meantime a market to be taken seriously, in relation to the worldwide cotton production, at 0.2%, the share of organic cotton is still extremely small. Because conventional cotton is quite simply cheaper. This applies for the B2B segment even more strongly, of course: “The importance of organic cotton in our industry obviously varies from market to market, but in general, it is still not that important,” stated José Dias, CEO of Picos. The company produces promotional textiles in Braga in the North of Portugal from fabrics that are produced in the EU – in some cases and on request from organically grown and dyed cotton. “Unfortunately, there is an impact on price and many are driven away when they see that their customers do not accept an increase. Price is still the major factor and change can only occur once all players realize that sustainability and ethics have to be attributed more importance. However, we do see more buyers becoming conscious of this,” commented Dias. “A change in the way of thinking is occurring in the promotion and corporate wear sector,” reported Franko Kahlert, Sales Manager at Brands Fashion. “The pioneers are interestingly enough above all big customers, such as the discounters, for instance, who are fitting their employees out with clothes made of organic cotton.
But organic cotton is increasingly becoming a theme in the merchandising area too, above all in the German soccer league.“ Brands Fashion is relying on the cooperation with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS, see box) and has been GOTS-certified since 2014. “The standard covers the production, picking and packing, labelling, trade and sales of all textiles that comprise of at least 70% natural fibres that come from certified organic cultivation,” explained Kahlert. “We go one step further with the highest GOTS seal and process textiles out of 100% organic cotton.” The customers, who implement these textiles include, for example, the environmental protection organisation, Sea Shepherd, for whom Brands Fashion produced a merchandising collection. Kahlert: “Small and medium-sized companies tend not to have reached this stage yet, after all organic quality does have its price of course – GOTS-certified products are around 20% more expensive than conventional goods. Nevertheless, it is not exclusively the big companies that implement them.”
Expertise is demanded
The growing demand ultimately results from the ever-increasing range of items offered: As in the retail sector, there is in the meantime an ecological alternative for many areas of application – and ecologically correct promotion wear also makes no comprises when it comes down to quality, wearability and style. In terms of the preferred material, however, it certainly does look like cotton will remain to be the chosen fibre for the time being. Whereas there are already a host of interesting alternatives in the retail segment – such as for instance linen, hemp or various recycling fibres – these only come into question on a limited scale in the B2B market. “We have used yarns from recycled plastic bottles, where the benefit is obviously purely ecological,” reported Dias. “We’ve also tried to use 50% recycled cotton and 50% recycled polyester yarns, but massive limitations on finer yarns and fabric led to the results being very rough and uncomfortable.” Bhardwaj added: “Hemp would be an interesting option, but we have not found a feasible supply chain to date. Bamboo fibre sounds good at first and consists of renewable raw materials, however the production process is anything but environmentally-friendly. Tencel®, an environmental- friendly produced synthetic fibre made of cellulose is on the other hand an example of an excellent material with beautiful drape, which we added to our collection in 2015.”
Regardless of which fibre one places one’s bets on – an independent certification is obligatory. “The GOTS label is recognised as the leading worldwide standard for the processing of textiles and places the highest demands of traceability along the entire supply chain. The OCS and the Oeko-Tex seals are also reputable. Oeko-Tex may place a higher emphasis on the absence of harmful substances, it does however also define environmental requirements,” said Bhardwaj, who relies on these three seals as far as the certification of her products is concerned. At the same time, maintaining personal contacts to the producers is a big advantage as is the case universally on the global market. “Certificates are not the be all and end all – one has to know the producers to ensure that one is on the same wavelength, especially if one is interested in long-term partnerships as in our case,” stated Bhardwaj. “After all, it is not just about checking that standards are being adhered to, but about strengthening partnerships and supporting producers in their development. We have been a member of Textile Exchange for many years, which promotes this sort of support.” In spite of the greatest integrity and accuracy – there is no 100% guarantee regarding the composition of a garment, after all the production process of cotton goods is extremely complex. “Spinning the yarn from fibres with different properties is almost an art in itself – comparable with making wine,” Bhardwaj explained. “That is why for instance it is almost impossible to guarantee that exclusively raw materials from field crops that have been irrigated with rain water are contained in a yarn.”
Documenting supply chains
Furthermore, a T-shirt is not automatically ecologically harmless, just because it was made out of organic cotton. It begins with the transport route: Before a garment is ready to be sold, it has in some cases travelled tens of thousands of kilometres, because the processing stages – cultivation, cleaning, spinning, weaving, dying, treating, cutting, sewing and customising – are carried out at different stations that are spread out all over the world. “We always try to buy the cotton from the country it is further processed in,” explained Bhardwaj. “Our partner factory in Tanzania works with local cotton, the same applies for Pakistan. We normally work with Indian cotton in Bangladesh, where no cotton grows. That was difficult in the past – we found it hard to get spinners to guarantee a single country of origin for the cotton. However this has now changed and there are also many farmers there, who produce according to the GOTS guidelines.” A further processing step that brings high ecological risks with it is the dyeing and treating of the fabric – the latter is understood to be the chemical treatment that is necessary in order to make a fabric soft, crease-resistant or easy-to-clean. Dias: “You can have a fabric knitted with organic cotton and then have it finished and softened with many other chemical treatments and it is still considered ‘organic’. Is this correct? Well, it depends on the conscience of each of the individuals concerned and I firmly believe that it should go a step further to include the actual dyeing and finishing process, which will always involve chemicals, but for it to be carried out under strict observation to ensure that all the other accessories are as eco-friendly as possible.” It is a good start here to rely on fabrics dyed in the EU, as Dias explained: “All dyeing companies based in the European Union are now strictly controlled, not only regarding the dye stuffs they use, but also the water they treat before feeding it back to the river is constantly controlled. Most dyers are now ISO certified and thus have to consistently fill in the necessary paperwork and be prepared for unexpected visits and controls, hence they take this very seriously and are very careful where they purchase their raw materials from.”
In contrast to pure organic seals such as OCS, which focus on the raw material, GOTS includes all of the stations from the field to the point of sale. “The GOTS certification covers the entire steps from the field to the garment: From the cultivation, to the cleaning, spinning, treating the yarn and knitting, to the finishing and dyeing, through to the sewing,” commented Kahlert. “This is why we had to provide the corresponding certificates for all sub-contractors and why our headquarters is subject to an audit, during the course of which every single box is turned over.“ If textiles are sold on to wholesalers, customisers or promotional products agencies, this is precisely where the certification chain ends. “Our articles are accompanied by a disclaimer on the label stating that only the unprinted product complies with the GOTS label,” Bhardwaj explained. Companies that sell to users like Brands Fashion, have to go a step further. “In the B2B industry, where it is mostly about individualised clothes, the embellishing also has to be integrated into the process,” explained Kahlert. “Our subsidiary Brands Polska, where we have our textiles embellished, was also certified. In some cases, we had to carry out conversions, because the GOTS provisions are also very strict when it comes down to the imprinting: For example, the sieves for the GOTS-conform screen-printing process had to be stored separately from the sieves for the conventional printing methods. It wasn’t easy to find a supplier for the dyes either.”
Overall, a much higher effort that also has its price of course, which in turn is why it will not assert itself on a big scale with the users in the near future. However, each individual advertising company can decide itself to what extent it wants to make its textile supply chain more sustainable – in fact in some cases more accurately than the consumer. A decision that is not only limited down to ecological factors, on the contrary: The production is where everything really gets started. A more ethical textile industry is the subject we will be focusing on in the coming issue of eppi magazine.
photos: Brands Fashion (5); Fairtrade International (1); Mantis World (1)