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The organic cotton market is blooming. India has become one of the leading producers of organic cotton. The number of designers showcasing organic collections at fashion shows is rising. But the domestic market has not been very friendly with the planet-friendly clothing. Is it just a rich man’s preoccupation?

Looking for a wardrobe with a message? Want to do your bit for the planet with a healthy and responsible lifestyle? Organic clothes are the cue.

According to the latest report by Texas based non-profit organisation Organic Exchange (OE), organic cotton weathered the global economic storm during the 2008/2009 farming season, and grew an impressive 20 percent. It now represents 0.76 percent of global cotton production.

What is this fabric the world is talking about? The term organic describes a method of farming without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides or fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering. Organic fashion is the blend of organic fabrics with contemporary fashion. The entire manufacturing process involves organic materials and elements, like the seeds used to get fibre, to successive processes like washing, dyeing, etc. are done the organic way. Even the colours used are botanical and herbal dyes.

Embroideries are also done with eco threads. Some designers spearheading the eco-friendly values with natural chic are Hemant Lecoanet, Digvijay Singh, EKRU, Dhirendra Singh and Anita Dongre. The most important factor in organic clothes is the fabric or fibre. Right from the cultivation to the manufacturing of the fibre, then the fabric processing, dyeing, printing and washing treatments, everything has to be organic. Designer Hemant Sagar, who has an organic and Ayurganic line of clothes says that his clothes are manufactured from certified organic cotton and coloured with botanical dyes. Ahmedabad based organic designerwear brand, Bhu:sattva uses fabric certified by Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS ) and OE and embellishments like painting and embroidery are done with herbal and natural elements.

But designing organic clothes comes with certain limitations, as there are strict standards and ethics to maintain. The limitations are the colour palette – which is limited to earthy tones of herbal dyes and to a certain extent the textures available. Designer Dhirendra Singh, founder of the organic brand FiveStrands believes that the basic value of organic clothes should be appreciated, and a designer should be smart enough to fill the gap of limitations.

Price is another factor. Because of the special care and processes required at every stage of manufacturing, organic clothes are approximately 25-35 percent more expensive than conventional clothing. However, the cost varies according to the materials used for a specific product. Designer Sagar says that his clients in India complain about the cost of organic collections, courtesy less awareness of the product. According to Sagar, going organic is a choice, but for many it is more of a style statement and symbol of social status. His sells more clothes abroad than in India and he comments, “Some stores where I had my collection closed down.”

Due to the lack of awareness and the prevailing perception of it as a high-end product, the demand for organic fashion has still not caught everyone’s fancy. This has resulted in limited availability of different treatments, inventions and discoveries. Singh cites this as the hurdle for the growth of organic fashion.

But as the number of ecological issues are increasingly jostling for attention, more customers are looking for eco-friendly and healthier lifestyle options or information on the content of materials used in garment production. For Bhu:sattva the number of customers is almost equal in India and abroad. Their clients, who are informed and concerned are ready to pay the extra price premium. With growing level of awareness and preference, economies of scale can be achieved, which will gradually reduce the extra cost of production.

Even after India has reached the top spot in production of organic cotton, the organic fashion market is still in the nascent stages. People have gradually begun to appreciate the value of organic clothing. Singh opines that organic brands and labels should make efforts to increase the level of awareness amongst people and make them value an organic product.

LaRhea Pepper, OE Senior Director and one of the world’s organic cotton production experts says, “Organic farming brings many social and environmental benefits; eliminating the use of harmful and toxic chemicals, reducing the cycles of debt that farmers – particularly marginalised ones in countries such as India find themselves in – and contributing to healthy ecosystems that benefit farmers and their communities.”

Commendable work has been done by many NGOs and private organisations that have volunteered to educate farmers and tradesmen for the economic and environmental benefits of organic farming. Manufacturers are lured by the price premium organic fibre offers over commercial fibre, because of fewer competitors and a vision for the growing organic market. The bulk of organic cotton production in India happens in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Andhra Pradesh.

One of the most challenging aspect of an organic line is to maintain its authenticity and purity. There are many international organisations who certify the product or fabric, provided it matches their set organic criteria. Some organisations set criteria for use of 100 percent organic materials while others set the criteria for a certain percentage of organic elements in the products. These standards were developed to support the integrity of organic products and to validate the presence of organic fibre in their finished products. GOTS monitors the process of harmonising all the different and slightly varying organic textile standards. However, it becomes expensive for small-scale producers as the charges for certification are high.

Some organisations that certify are OE, Control Union Certifications, USDA Organic (United States, JAS (Japan), Australian Certified Organic,  Agriculture Biologique (France) and the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). Sagar is quite skeptical about the quality of organic cotton in India. He says he buys certified organic cotton, but now many organisations have started faking and lowering the standards. He recalls, “There are some international bodies which doubt the authenticity of organic cotton in India. One cannot differentiate between normal and organic cotton with  the naked eye, it canonly be tested in the laboratory. Hence, the misuse.”

Designer Digvijay Singh from Bhu:sattva believes that the future of fashion is organic. “History will repeat itself. It started in India as part of Ayurveda, and will make a comeback soon. In fact, the future of mankind is organic,” he concludes.

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