TBT – Organic Man Redux
For Throwback Thursday, thoughts go to this photo of Stefan Bergill, organic man. It is baseball Spring Training time, Earth Day is coming up and there he is. The interview is as relevant as when I first did it.
I have known Stefan Bergill since lived out West and he ran Patagonia’s Beneficial T’s program. He’s a good guy even though he is a Red Sox fan.
He is knowledgeable and passionate about organic cotton. He moved East and he currently works for Econscious. I caught up with him the other day and asked him a few questions about organic cotton and his experiences.
IK: What originally got you into being interested in organic clothing and promoting organic clothing?
SB: I think for two reasons, first I have a father who has been tending his garden for 35 years without the use of any chemical fertilizers or pesticides and the amount of food he grows on an acre and a half is amazing. Not to mention the taste of organic fruits and vegetables. The other is that I was working for Patagonia and in the early 1990’s Patagonia did a survey on the fibers they used, to determine which one was the most damaging to the environment. To their great surprise they found out that cotton was the biggest environmental culprit. Being an outdoors person and working at Patagonia got me really thinking about what we can do to help the environ ment. The more I learn about cotton I’ve come to realize that by promoting organic cotton I can help affect so many different things; the health of the environment, human health, and social change.
IK: How has the organic industry changed while you have been doing this?
SB: When I stared working for Beneficial T’s®, Patagonia’s wholesale organic T-shirt division, we had to convince spinners and factories to work with us. I only had an 18/1 open end yarn to work with (it gave us a rather coarse 5.8 oz shirt) and if I wanted to run a new yarn I had to commit to 20,000 kgs of cotton. That is roughly 40,000 T-shirts. To say that the options were limited is to be kind. There were only a few sources for organic cotton T’s available and the selection consisted primarily of Natural colored T’s that were not very pleasant to wear. Things started to change somewhat in around 2003 with the advent of the Organic Exchange (www.organicexchange.org) they have done a great job of getting companies to consider adding organic cotton and educating famers. After Hurricane Katrina things started to change rapidly. More and more corporations realized that they had to think about the environment in their operations and were asking for organic products. Now I can get yarns from 12/1 to 50/1 in ringspun or open end and all kinds of blends. It is a lot easier to produce a good product nowadays and the competition is becoming fierce, which is great!
IK: What are the main reasons you tell people why they should be buying organic cotton?
SB: Cotton although it might not be the best fiber in terms of overall environmental impact is the most common fiber used in the world. Roughly 40 – 45% of world fiber consumption is cotton and that is why we can have the greatest impact by moving cotton to an organic production system. By buying organic cotton customers are helping the:
- Environment; soil quality, water quality, animal and insect biodiversity.
- Human health; especially in the developing world where pesticides are sprayed without proper protection and training.
- Social impact; organic cotton fetches a price that is usually 25- 40% higher than conventional and this gives farmers a chance to make a living off what they are producing. By not having to borrow money for seed, chemical fertilizer and pesticides farmers can be less dependent on multinational corporations and banks. We are also making sure that the factories we use pay salaries that conform to international standards on labor.
IK: What do you see in the future for organic clothing?
SB: I see a bright future as corporations and consumers are all becoming more aware that we can not continue a system of resource depletion unless we find new planets to mine. The growth rate for organic cotton the last three years have been 100%+ / year. Although the economic slowdown has hurt the organic textile sector there is still solid growth forecast for this year and beyond.
IK: It seems even to this day people are confused about what “organic” means. How do you quickly tell someone that is not knowledgeable?
SB: Organic is an agricultural system that does not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides in growing crops. It is a healthier system that utilizes crop rotation and natural fertilizers to enhance the soil.
IK: What do you think has to happen to turn a significant percentage of cotton growing to be done organically?
SB: Good point, even though the growth has been 100% + for the last three years organic cotton is still a very small niche with roughly ½% of the world cotton crop grown organically. I do see some interesting signs though. Here is the list of the biggest users of organic cotton in 2008, from the Textile Exchange – (www.textileexchange.org) and their organic cotton report
- Wal-Mart (USA)
- C&A (Belgium)
- Nike (USA)
- H&M (SE)
- Zara (Spain)
- Anvil (USA)
- Coop Switzerland
- Pottery Barn (USA)
- Greensource (USA)
- Hess Natur (Germany).
This shows that large corporations are starting to use it and this gives us volume. This will help in getting us gins and spinners that can have organic lines that are running continuously and drive the price down. In the past a gin or spinner had to stop their processes, clean out their machinery and then run organic. This lead to very high surcharges for these high volume processes. With dedicated lines we should see a drop in the premium for organic. Price, availability and quality that is as good as what is available in the conventional cotton industry is going to help drive this change. In the US we will also have to figure out how to defoliate the cotton without the use of defoliants. Finally yield in an organic system, in the past the criticism has always been that organic agriculture gives such a low yield that it is not sustainable. It is my conviction that after a period of 5-8 years of organic cultivation the soil will be much more productive as natural systems are improving. When that happens and a farmer does not have to spend 50% of his income on his cotton on pesticides, fertilizer and seed and makes more money growing his crops organically then we will see a wholesale change.
NOTE: Stefan added a couple things when I spoke to him yesterday (2014.)