Reebok has announced it wants to produce plant-based footwear made from organic cotton and corn.
The US-based company, which is a subsidiary of adidas, has launched the Cotton + Corn initiative as part of its effort to make footwear from “things that grow” instead of materials that aren’t biodegradable.
“Unfortunately, the fact is most shoes just end up in landfills, which is something we are trying to change,” said Reebok president Matt O’Toole.
“As a brand, we will be focusing on sustainability with the Cotton + Corn programme as well as other initiatives we have in the works.”
The sportswear brand has teamed up with DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products, which produces a biodegradable rubber known as Susterra propanediol that is derived from industrial-grown corn.
The soles of the shoes will be made using this rubber while the rest will be composed of organic cotton.
“This is really just the first step for us,” said Bill McInnis, of Reebok Future. “With Cotton + Corn we’re focused on all three phases of the product lifecycle.
“First, with product development we’re using materials that grow and can be replenished, rather than the petroleum-based materials commonly used today.
“Second, when the product hits the market we know our consumers don’t want to sacrifice on how sneakers look and perform.
“Finally, we care about what happens to the shoes when people are done with them. So we’ve focused on plant-based materials such as corn and cotton at the beginning, and compostability in the end.”
The company wants to bring its plant-based trainers to market later this year.
With GOTS certification, Texaura – an Indian organic textile brand – is the first brand targeting the global consumers in 200 countries with B2C model with the help of its e-commerce portal.
The company offers luxurious and sustainable cotton bedding range. Texaura is derived from two words- ‘Tex’ from textiles and ‘Aura’, the richness, comfort, durability and feel of the fabric which plays a crucial role in the making of a linen or bedsheet.
Organic textile has an estimated market size of US $ 15.76 billion in 2015 and is steadfastly growing at 16 per cent per annum. It may be mentioned here that the market is poised for growth predominantly in regions like USA, Europe and Oceania.
Manuj Terapanthi, Promoter of the company states, “Consumers are increasingly choosing organics products in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and are willing to pay more for products with quality assurance standards supporting the environment and social welfare. Texaura is here to give a face to organic textiles from India.”
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres and treatments, has released its new Version 5.0, three years after the Version 4.0 was introduced. The new version is a result of a comprehensive stakeholder input process in which various organizations with expertise in organic production, textile processing and social criteria participated.
The high ecological and social requirements as well as word-wide practicability and verifiability were considered in the revision work, in order to achieve a reliable and transparent set of criteria. The aim of the new standard is to define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.
Textile processors and manufacturers are enabled to export their organic fabrics and garments with one certification accepted in all major markets. The implementation deadline for GOTS-certified entities to fully comply with Version 5.0 is 1 March, 2018. The standards for the ‘additional fibre material’ are now stricter regarding the environmentally improved and certified regenerated cellulosic fibres: The use of Viscose and Modal is now restricted to 10 per cent (25 per cent for sportswear and socks). Lyocell may still be used up to 30 per cent due its more sustainable manufacturing processes.
The new version follows the general approach of GOTS to define high-level certifiable environmental criteria throughout the entire processing chain of apparel and home textiles (including spinning, knitting, weaving, wet processing, manufacturing, and trading) made from a minimum of 70 per cent certified organic fibres.
Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Solidaridad and WWF have released the list of companies that will be assessed in the new round of their Sustainable Cotton Ranking to be published in October 2017. The second edition of the ranking will include major companies from all continents, including from countries such as China and Brazil, and online companies such as Zalando and Amazon. As in 2016, the ranking will score companies on their policy, traceability and actual uptake of sustainable cotton.
On the Target List
This year the scope of the ranking will be broadened. The target list of companies (PDF) has been expanded to offer a more global representation of consumer-facing companies estimated to use more than 10,000 metric tons of lint cotton annually and include companies from emerging markets and online retailers.
Creating a list of the largest corporate cotton users is challenging as most companies do not publish the volumes they use in their products. PAN UK, Solidaridad and WWF welcome feedback from any companies who believe their cotton use has been under or over-estimated, as well as those whose may have been omitted from the list and wish to be included.
Scoring Company Progress
The first Cotton Ranking (PDF) published in 2016 showed that the majority of companies using most cotton globally were failing to deliver on cotton sustainability, with just eight companies out of 37 showing positive progress in the ranking.
By conducting a second Cotton Ranking in 2017, PAN UK, Solidaridad and WWF expect to see that more companies have taken steps forward on their sustainable cotton policies, traceability and sourcing. As transparency and accountability to customers is considered paramount by the three NGOs, only publicly available information will be used in scoring company performance. The report will be published in October 2017 so as to take into account companies’ public reporting on their 2016 performance.
Updating Market Trends
The report will also include a market update on the available supply and uptake of cotton from the main cotton sustainability standards (organic, Fairtrade, Cotton Made in Africa and Better Cotton). While around 10% of global cotton supply was grown according to one of these standards in 2014, less than a fifth of this amount was actually being bought as more sustainable cotton, with the rest being sold as conventional due to lack of demand from top brands and companies.
Thirty-seven companies estimated globally to use the most cotton in their products were scored on their sustainable cotton policy, sourcing, and traceability. Only publicly available information was used in scoring company performance.
The Cotton Ranking focuses on companies rather than individual brands as, while sustainability practices can vary significantly between different brands, entire companies need to change sourcing practices in order to transform cotton production.
Cotton is grown in around 80 countries worldwide and is a key raw material for the textile industry, accounting for around 32% of all fibres used. Sustainability issues include the widespread use of pesticides, with 6.2% of global pesticide sales associated with cotton production (which uses just 2.3% of the world’s arable land), and intensive water use, with 73% of global production currently dependent on irrigation.
While many smallholder cotton farmers are driven into debt by the cost of pesticides and fertilisers, sustainable cotton production has the potential to lift farmers out of poverty by providing a more stable income and improving working conditions.
A number of sustainable cotton standards have been developed in the last 35 years, starting with Organic cotton in the 1980s, followed by Fairtrade in 2004, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) in 2005 and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2009. All provide guidance and support for farmers and seek to assure retailers and consumers that the cotton in the products they buy are being produced using sustainable farming methods.
The supply of sustainable cotton has never been greater (estimated to be at 13% of global supply in 2015) but uptake by companies, essential for mainstreaming sustainable cotton, remains low at approximately 17% of what is available.
Few topics of discussion (with the exception perhaps of the current U.S. elections) receive as much debate these days than how cotton should be farmed and harvested. The lowly gossypium plant, which is cultivated across the world, was once a remarkably hard crop to farm and harvest. The stories of African American cotton pickers’ bloody hands and endemic poverty during the early and mid-1900s became a symbol of the injustices that were equated with an industry that had at that time, neither the technology nor the means to meet the needs of growing demand.
The introduction of genetic modification to U.S. cotton farming in the 1990s further transformed the conventional cotton industry. Studies have found that genetic modification of cotton seeds not only increased cotton production, but reduced the need for insecticides and some other forms of pesticides in the field. In the U.S., technology has kept up with these changes, creating increasingly faster ways for cotton to be harvested from the field. Even though the U.S. is no longer the largest producer of conventional cotton (third, compared to China and India), it reaps tremendous benefit from the newer innovations that have become a mainstay of cotton production. According to Cotton Incorporated, the conventional U.S. cotton industry (that is, cotton not grown or produced organically), contributes to as much as $100 billion in revenues to affiliated industries.
But those advances continue to spur debate about the best – and safest – way to generate the world’s demand for this much-needed apparel product. Does GM cotton come with secondary health risks? Is GM cotton safe for the environment? Are the pesticides that end up being used with the process risky? Do the benefits of conventional cotton outweigh the concerns that are prompted by pesticide use?
TriplePundit writers have written a fair amount on organic cotton topics, from the nuts and bolts of the global organic cotton industry to the strides that the organic garment industry has made in recent years. We felt it was time, therefore, to take a deeper look at the processes that are used in conventional cotton production and the points raised by that industry about the benefits of transgenetic cotton farming.
To get the industry’s input on this question, we spoke to Cotton Inc’s Director of Agricultural Research in Entomology, Ryan Kurtz. Kurtz’s area of expertise is insect resistance management in genetically engineered corn and cotton. Formerly the global lead for traits insect resistance management at Syngenta, Kurtz specializes in North American Bt trait cotton production, a cotton engineered to fight the infamous boll weevil, among other pests. Most of the information below therefore focuses on U.S. cotton production.
Conventional cotton: Not all pesticides are created equally
To really address the debate over conventional cotton production, said Kurtz, it’s necessary to recognize that not all kinds of pesticides can be lumped together. We may think of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as ‘pesticides’ but in truth, they are vastly different from each other in how they are applied and what they do.
“I think it is always important to be precise at any way you are describing things. Pesticides is a large bucket area. I think people do tend to think of insects more as “pests” than weeds and funguses, because they can relate more to it,” explained Kurtz.
The distinction of insecticide from other types of pesticides is critical, said Kurt, if you want to determine whether GM technology has made a difference in making cotton production safer and whether it should have a role in cotton production. According to information we received from Cotton Inc, GM production has dramatically lowered the demand for insecticide on cotton farms. And that in turn, has made cotton production safer.
But its real coup d’etat may have come in the boost it gave to production yields when it effectively made GM cotton immune to one of the South’s most destructive pests: the boll weevil.
Nicknamed in 1903 as America’s “wave of evil,” the tiny insect caused widespread destruction of the country’s cotton yields until insecticides came on the market. In the 1970s, boll weevil eradication began in earnest in a multi-state effort. The evil weevil has largely been eradicated at this point thanks to a systemic approach to strategic insecticide use. Cotton Inc points out that some 20 years after its introduction in the U.S. South, the impact of transgenic farming can be found in the number of applications of insecticide still used in the U.S. According to data supplied by the organization, “U.S. cotton growers applied insecticide an average of 1.96 times over the course of the season – less than twice.”
Kurtz said that those low numbers are due to farming methods that capitalize on of one of Nature’s more ingenious inventions: a bacteria that lives in the soil and is lethal to many insects. By figuring out how to genetically introduce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into plants (cotton in this case), scientists were able to make the plant resistant to the bollworm and other destructive insects.
“Through a natural process called agrobacterium mediated transfer (AMT), they figured out how to get the gene from that Bt bacteria that produces the insecticidal protein to put that gene into a cotton plant. So now, instead of having to rely on the bacteria to make the protein that kills the insect, the plant makes the protein that kills the insects. ”
GM cotton: the hurdles that still remain
As effective as transgenic cotton farming has been in reducing insect infestations of cotton, however, there have still been some challenges to overcome. The first, note scientists at the Aroian Lab at the University of San Diego, is figuring out just how Bt does what it does.
“[With] 50 [years] of use, you’d think we’ve got everything figured out about Bt. But the truth is, we don’t know much. Most importantly , we don’t know how it works,” notes the lab in its blog post, bacillus thuringiensis. That question is important because recent reports of insect resistance to the Bt trait have led scientists to realize that they don’t know everything about the trait, or how to ensure that more insects don’t develop immunity. The Aroian Lab points out that this problem isn’t limited to GM farming, either, so it’s not a specific failing of GM technology. “For every single synthetic pesticide that is in use today, there are species of insects that are resistant to it.” Unlocking how Bt acts could answer why some insects are immune to its toxin.
But immunity isn’t the only problem that has surfaced regarding Bt GM farming, says Melody Meyer, who serves as the vice president to Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated and as the executive director to the UNFI Foundation. As so often happens in Nature with unintended outcomes, the dramatic reduction in insects has added consequences.
“It may have reduced insecticide use but not herbicides,” said Meyer. In fact several studies in the last decade have confirmed that the use of GM technology hasn’t reduced herbicide use. It has increased it.
And that’s where farmers have found the greatest proof to the maxim, “to every front there’s a back.” For every organism that may be reduced through scientific farming methods, there may be another that can capitalize on it. Since 2004, farmers have been finding “superweeds” that have acquired an intolerance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Reports of Roundup-intolerant weeds such as amaranth have been known to destroy thousands of acres of cotton crops.
Recent studies on glyphosate toxicity in the environment and the food chain is another issue of debate concerning the methods used to produce conventional cotton. Kurtz said that while some studies have suggested that glyphosate may be a “probable” carcinogen, “there is very little evidence, if any to support that and there has been a long, 30+ year history of safe use in the U.S. Kurtz said the fact that it is considered a “general-use pesticide” is indicative that it is safe. “Most reputable organizations highlighted early on that there is a long history of safe use of glyphosate and the concerns about cancer are unwarranted.
In fact, the debate over this issue has persisted for years, as Kurtz stated. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization stated in May that it was “unlikely” that the chemical would pose “carcinogenic risk” from exposure through diet. The statement contradicts the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which stated in 2015 that there was a likelihood that the pesticide is carcinogenic. It has stood by its claim, even though two other agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority contradict its position. More research is underway.
Cottonseed oil and questions of pesticide residue
Cotton that is manufactured in the U.S. is used not only for clothes but for food. Cottonseed oil has been manufactured from the plant’s seed at least since the early 1900s. Today it is the unsung hero of today’s conventional food manufacturing systems due to its shelf stability.
The the two questions commonly raised are how much pesticide residue is left on the fibers and seed after the harvesting? How much residue is in the final product?
“Because of the way cotton is grown and the amount of time that it is in the field, the use of pesticides in cotton [production] is well before the fiber is developed. So you actually can set the goal of using pesticides to protect the plant that produces the fiber. Once the fiber is there, most pesticides aren’t applied any more,” said Kurtz, who said the organization monitors studies on pesticide residue through its membership in Bremen Cotton Exchange, an economic organization concerned with advancing the global cotton trade. So the fibers that make their way into the apparel supply chain are unlikly to bring pesticide residue with them.
He added that because cotton oil is a food product, the Food and Drug Administration regulates what and when pesticides can be added to the growing plant. “They look at cotton just like it were a vegetable,” with a set criteria that limits the use of insecticide and other toxic substances.
Still, there are a considerable number of researchers and activists who question this data.Alliance of Women Scientists and Scholars, for example, maintains that “[conventional] cottonseed oil may be highly contaminated with pesticide residues” and that the cottonseed oil’s natural toxin, gossypol, is also a common allergen. [Gossypol] poisoning is common and may be deadly for dairy cows and other livestock.” However, the site offers limited data to back up this claim. Gossypol is generally removed during the oil refining process, so what might hurt cows in raw form should be harmless for humans who consume the oil.
While pesticide residues have been found in cottonseed oil in India, it is not clear if those pesticides were applied the same way as in the U.S., where workers must be trained and labeling is enforced by the EPA. And not all studies of pesticide use in India have found residues, either. One study found plenty of examples of residue contamination in fruits and vegetables in India, but none in cotton fibers.
But a University of Missouri newsletter offers the best explaination as to why cottonseed oil manufactured in the U.S.”rarely” show residues of pesticides in lab tests. The issue isn’t just when the insecticide is applied, but where the cotton grown.
“[Cotton] raised for oil is grown mostly in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, not in the South. The shorter growing season there prevents maturation of the fiber-producing cotton boll,” explains the writer. (The USDA offers a more comprhensive list of states where cotton is grown). This shorter season requires precise control, as Kurtz suggests, so pesticides are applied only up until the boll is about to open. After the cotton is picked and the seed processed into oil, the oil goes through a “deodorizing” stage in which it is subjected to hot steam in a vacuum setting. The cleansing is supposed to remove any residue of insecticide or other unwanted compounds.
Meyer from UNFI suggests however, that with the broad disagreement on this issue, skeptics will continue looking for third-party data to prove that cottonseed oil is completely free of pesticide residue.
Conventional cotton and organic processes
One question we asked Kurtz was why, given the growing interest in organic cotton, conventional cotton industry didn’t consider transitioning toward an organic production model. If there was public pushback against GM foods, why not take the steps now to help farmers adopt organic processes.
“I think it is a matter of feasibility,” said Kurtz. “Organic production works quite well for certain growers on smaller acreages. The ability to scale that up would just be too expensive because of the cost of labor. Some of the organic practices just prohibit some of the more mechanized means that we are using today and there just wouldn’t be a way to produce enough fiber to meet the demand through organic means. It would just cost too much to produce.”
Given the world’s increasing dependence on cotton for clothing, food and medical products, it’s a perspective that makes sense. With 7 billion people on the planet, and a demand that exceeds that of any other fiber in existence, transitioning from GM methods may seem impractical on the surface.
Meyer agreed that “the demand for organic cotton isn’t as high as the total production of cotton worldwide,” but she argued that this was largely because “people don’t understand the long-term effects to the environment and to society and health in general that this poses down the line. There are unintended consequences that you pay for later,” she said.
Data: The final benchmark in cotton production
If there were one lesson to draw from the endless debate over how cotton should be grown and processed, it might be that it is quantifiable research results that tell the true story about pesticide use in cotton production. Is there really widespread insecticide residue in cotton products? Does glyphosate have unintended consequences? Answers to either or both of these questions may in coming years, alter our view of GM produced cotton.But what those answers won’t do, is change the impact that conventional cotton production with all of its problems and remarkable concepts, has had on the world as we know it.
Major brands have increased their use of so-called Better Cotton.
Cotton, the most widely used natural fiber, is considered the world’s dirtiest crop because of its heavy use of pesticides—its cultivation accounts for up to 17.5 percent of global insecticide sales, according to some estimates. So in recent years, several apparel and home-goods companies, including Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Nike, have used organic cotton, grown by farmers who eschew pesticides and enrich their soil with compost.
That’s good for the environment but raises another big problem: Organic cotton is too expensive for average shoppers. Organic fiber cost as much as $2.20 per pound, vs. about 61¢ for conventional cotton, in the 2015-16 growing season. That’s kept demand low; less than 1 percent of the world’s cotton production is organic.
“That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses” – Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea
Over the past nine years, Ikea, Zara-parent Inditex, and H&M, among others, have signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a coalition of farmers, garment makers, and retailers committed to producing and using sustainable cotton at accessible prices. BCI farmers are taught how to grow sustainable cotton using less pesticide and water—reducing stress on the environment—at a cost close to that of regular fiber. “That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses,” says Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea. Since 2009 the retailer has increased the percentage of Better Cotton used in its products, from sheets to furniture. In fiscal 2015, 70 percent of the cotton Ikea used was Better Cotton.
Environmentally Correct T-shirts are too Expensive for Many Shoppers
Similar efforts, like Bayer CropScience’s e3 sustainable cotton program, which works with farmers to ensure they’re producing cotton responsibly, are increasing supplies of sustainable cotton. The material can help companies appeal to millennials and environmentally minded customers. “Offering a product with a sustainability cachet but not the added cost may meet the sweet spot of pleasing both a consumer’s conscience and wallet,” says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Gregory Elders.
In 2015, Nike and H&M used more sustainable cotton than organic cotton for the first time. Better Cotton has grown to around 12 percent of global cotton production in 2015, vs. 0.5 percent for organic, according to BCI. Says BCI Chief Operating Officer Lena Staafgard: “By 2020 our goal is to reach 5 million farmers worldwide and account for 30 percent of global cotton production.”
Cotton Crib Sheet
*More than 27 million tons of cotton are produced annually in over 85 countries
*Ikea uses 1 percent of the world’s cotton
*It can take up to 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Fund
With a well-worn hoe dangling on his shoulder, farmer Elie Gnoumou scanned his cotton field in the south of Burkina Faso, Africa’s top grower of the fiber, with visible relief.
A month before the harvest is due to start, the 44-year-old said his hard work this season is likely to pay off. “I’ve had to do six insecticide treatments so far and there’s probably two more to go,” Gnoumou said. “But it’s looking good.”
The West African nation decided in April to halt the production of genetically modified cotton because the short fiber was hurting its reputation and cutting revenue. Thirteen years after the variety known as Bt cotton was introduced by Monsanto Co., the country’s three cotton companies and the producers’ association told farmers to sow only conventional seeds from July.
That left 350,000 cotton growers worried they’d face a drop in income. Conventional cotton is more vulnerable to parasites such as bollworms, forcing farmers to buy more pesticides and in some cases expand their acreage, according to Wilfried Yameogo, managing director of state-controlled Sofitex, the largest cotton buyer in the West African nation.
Gnoumou has grown cotton for more than 20 years on a field of about 15 hectares (37 acres) with the help of his wife. He owns a tractor, a car, and was able to put his six children through school. “With GM cotton, I knew the yield I would get,” he said. “With conventional cotton, you don’t know what will happen.”
The cotton season started with sufficient rains, leaving Burkina Faso on track to reach its target of 750,000 metric tons in the 2016-2017 season, up from 581,000 tons in the previous season, when unfavorable weather damaged crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s in line with an expected output increase in West Africa overall, which will probably jump 24 percent to 1.9 million tons, it said in a reportlast month.
Cotton is Burkina Faso’s main cash crop and the biggest source of foreign exchange after gold. Unlike its neighbors Ivory Coast and Senegal, which export a variety of crops besides cotton, Burkina Faso’s economy relies heavily on the fiber. Almost 80 percent of the active population earns an income from agriculture, according to the International Monetary Fund.
While there are eight cotton exporters in West Africa, Burkina Faso was the only country in the region to grow genetically modified seeds.
Monsanto’s plans to use Burkina Faso as a springboard for expansion into West Africa didn’t succeed as little information was given out about the program, according to Bruno Bachelier, a cotton expert at the French agricultural research institute Cirad.
“The general idea was that neighboring countries were waiting to see the results from Burkina Faso before they would decide to go ahead,” Bachelier said by phone from Montpellier, France.
Burkina Faso is currently in talks with Monsanto for compensation, saying it’s lost an estimated 48 billion CFA francs ($82 million) in revenue. The short length fiber meant that the nation’s cotton missed out on a per-kilogram (2.2-pound) bonus of 20 francs for the past three seasons. “Farmers can sell their cotton for a better price this season, which will offset the costs for extra pesticides,” Karim Traore, the president of the national cotton farmers’ union, said in an interview in the nation’s second-biggest city, Bobo-Dioulasso.
Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“When you know the advantages and the ease of growing GM cotton, the return to conventional cotton is very hard,” Sofitex’s Yameogo said. “But it’s the price to pay to meet the demands of the global market.”