Sunday, July 20, 2008

2008 FTC Workshop: Cotton Incorporated

On July 15, I attended the 2008 FTC Workshop: Green Building and Textiles in Washington, D.C.; this is the second of a series of reports about the presentations and discussions. (To see all, select blog entries tagged "regulation".)

Some of the most interesting moments of the morning workshop focused on the interplay between the representatives of Organic Exchange and Cotton Incorporated. They were, or course, thoroughly polite and professional when making their own environmental claims with only oblique references to each other. But anyone who has been following the changes in the cotton market could detect the cracks beneath the surface of Cotton Inc's very public embrace of the "sustainability" label. Spokesperson Patricia O'Leary made the following points:
  • Improved methods of growing cotton have reduced the crop's impact on soil, water and workers in the field.
  • "Environmental friendliness" has consistently ranked below fit, price, style and color in the leading factors in consumer decision-making.
  • Consumers are overwhelmingly skeptical or uncertain about environmental claims they see in advertising.

To address the last point first, there's no question that many consumers -- including myself -- are confused and frustrated by the proliferation of information and misinformation available, and the very loose use of terms such as "green", "sustainable", "earth-friendly" and "natural". O'Leary's recommendation to the FTC was that the Green Guides need to clarify the language used in marketing textiles. But is Cotton Inc's newest commercial (Green Fields) part of the solution or an example of the problem?

Yes, conventional cotton growing in the U.S. and other developed nations is much cleaner than it was even a decade ago. But according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the top four producers are China, the USA, India and Pakistan. China produces nearly twice as much cotton as the USA, and while both are increasing their cultivation of organic cotton, in China and other developing countries, pesticides and fertilizers are not only still used in large quantities, but are applied by hand, posing a significant health risk to the workers and their families, since some of these chemicals are linked to birth defects. Consumers may also be interested to know more about the "improved methods" used by US growers have adopted, especially the genetically modified cotton seed which not only helps grow cotton, but which, in the form of cottonseed and cottonseed oil, ends up in our food supply via dairy cattle or processed foods. So when you read Cotton Inc's sustainability claims, pay special attention to what -- and who -- they leave out.

As for environmental concerns ranking above fit, style and other clothing features, that's not surprising and it probably won't change for most people. But with 50% of consumers indicating this was a factor in their decision-making, doesn't that suggest that retailers who offer stylish, reasonably priced clothing in a range of sizes and body types will soon discover that being able to make an honest and credible green claim will give them the edge over the retailer who doesn't?

No comments: