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Shoppers say they want ‘clean‘, local cotton. So why not give it to them?

EACH YEAR close to 20 million tons of cotton, the wispy white seed-hair that serves as the raw material for the world’s most popular fabric, is harvested around the globe. Unfortunately, this amazingly comfortable, durable, and versatile product is something of a pesticide and water hog — traits that have led activists to label it one of the planet’s “dirtiest” crops.

It need not be so, say organizations such as the California-based Sustainable Cotton Project. The Sustainable Cotton Project, along with other environmental, labor and health advocates, is working, as the project’s literature puts it, to “lessen the toll that the soil-to-shirt cotton production process takes on the earth’s air, water, and soil and the health of people in cotton-growing areas.“

More farmers might take up the mantle of ”clean“ cotton, advocates say, if consumers were willing to demand, and pay a premium for, textiles made from sustainably produced fibers. An MU scholar has recently determined that this may already be happening.

For producers, says Jung Ha-Brookshire, an assistant professor in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management at MU, communication is key.

“Consumers want to know where their clothes come from and would rather buy clothes made of sustainably produced fibers,” she says. “Many apparel companies use sustainable practices; however, they don’t promote them very well.”

Ha-Brookshire and her colleague Pamela Norum, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in MU’s Textile and Apparel Management Department, asked 500 consumers nationwide about their clothing buying preferences. Most indicated they favored apparel made of sustainably produced cotton grown in the U.S. over nonspecific cotton apparel. Respondents also said they were willing to pay up to $5 more for a $30 “clean” cotton shirt that was produced domestically.

“The apparel industry, and specifically U.S. cotton farmers, are missing a big opportunity to promote their brand,” Norum says. “Consumers want to buy sustainably produced cotton, and they want to buy U.S. cotton. Many U.S. cotton farmers are using these sustainable practices but aren’t communicating that fact well enough to the public. If they would increase transparency about cotton production, consumers would be more likely to buy their products.”

Studies related to Ha-Brookshire and Norum’s findings were published in both the Journal of Consumer Marketing and the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal.

Input Intensive: Conventional cotton production usually involves high levels of pesticides, a circumstance that has led environmental activists to label it the world’s “dirtiest” crop. Photo by Rob Hill.

INPUT INTENSIVE: Conventional cotton production usually involves high levels of pesticides, a circumstance that has led environmental activists to label it the world’s “dirtiest” crop.
Photo by Rob Hill.

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