Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Organic or not organic . . . . . ?

Fashionista was shocked when she first read in the distinguished German Financial Times Deutschland (FTD) that allegedly large volumes of organic cotton produced in India and used by high street chains such as H&M, C&A and Tchibo may have been contaminated with genetically modified cotton. Not surprisingly, the article led to a flurry of comments, both from the companies and institutes concerned as well as other industry bodies and even the German government. After all, organic is all about non-GMO and GM cotton seeds are prohibited under organic standards.

According to FTD, Indian authorities uncovered this scandal in April 2009, following which French certifier Ecocert and Dutch certifier Control Union were ordered to pay fines amounting to tens of thousands of Euros (it may be that this was for non-conformities in their certification processes rather than fraud, and that changes have since been made). Both certifiers are also working for H&M (who allegedly knew of the scandal and was in contact with the certifiers to ensure that this incident would not happen again). C&A and Tchibo apparently did not have any knowledge of this matter until informed of it by FTD. The companies have reacted in different ways: while Tchibo has now stated that its organic cotton products are not affected because its current cotton products originate not from the affected areas in India but from Turkey, C&A has announced that it will continue to sell organic cotton from India but will investigate this matter and talk to the certifier.

Lothar Kruse, who is leading the independent laboratory Impetus based in Northern Germany which checks fibres and yarns for smaller eco fashion houses claims that - generally speaking - about 30 percent of the organic cotton test material he receives is genetically modified. The figure may be unexpectedly high, but could be explained on the basis that a great number of samples sent for testing may already be suspected of being contaminated. In any event, certifiers of organic textiles and other textile industry bodies have been eager to try and limit the damage by explaining the difficulties of growing and using GM crops next to organic crops, and by clarifying the figures stated in the FTD article. Certainly, it has to be kept in mind that by stating something is 'organic' this does not necessarily amount to a purity claim. Stating that something is 'organic' in most cases will mean that ingredients or materials with certain qualities have been used and certain procedures have been complied with. Contamination may occur due to factors which are outside of the control of the relevant farmer/manufacturer/distributor/etc..

Without wanting to dig deep into the discussions, explanations and justifications, the debate shows clearly the fragility of reputation of this relatively young and overwhelmingly well-meaning industry, how easily it can be thrown into turmoil and how difficult it can be to confirm that a product does indeed fulfil the criteria claimed on its "green" label. This matter confirms that a functioning and widely recognised certification system with uniform standards for organic products is becoming more and more important. Not just to serve as a marketing instrument in 'normal' times but equally importantly to strengthen consumers' confidence in times of doubt that the product they are buying fulfils all the 'green' criteria claimed on the label.