Originally published: StarTribune
Organic cotton textiles register no more than a footnote in the world’s cotton production, but Vishal Naithani wants to change that.
His company, Sustained Organic Living in Edina, selects certified organic cotton grown in India with non-GMO seeds. The products are made using only fair trade labor on the farms and in the factories.
The challenge for Naithani and his company, which is also known as Sol Organics, is to be able to create the level of interest among consumers for organic apparel that has been generated for organic food. For now, his chief weapon is price: He aims to price his products significantly lower than his online competitors and on par with high-quality bedding that is not fair trade organic.
“Every family should have access to affordable organic cotton just like they have access to affordable organic food,” he said. “It shouldn’t be only the wealthy who can afford premium products.”
Sol Organics is one of a number of companies offering organic, fair trade textiles online or in stores. Companies such as Boll & Branch and Patagonia sell them. West Elm, Pottery Barn, and Target feature organic cotton that may or may not be fair trade. Naithani said Sol Organics is the only Minnesota-based company to do so.
Part of the reason Naithani acts as a maverick is that organic cotton hasn’t grabbed the consumer’s attention like organic milk, produce and poultry.
“Shoppers aren’t ingesting organic cotton as they do organic foods, so they may not see the benefit,” said Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at Kantar Retail, a retail consulting business. “We haven’t trained shoppers to think about how cotton is grown or how it fits in the environmental food chain.”
Conventionally grown cotton’s critics say the so-called “fabric of our lives” is a crop that requires lots of water and chemicals to grow. A pesticide-intensive crop, conventional cotton uses more than an average amount of pesticides, although the amount is in dispute.
Cotton covers 2.5 percent of the world’s cultivated land, yet growers use an estimated 10 to 25 percent of the world’s pesticides, according to Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania organic farm and researcher. AMIS Global, an agriculture data firm, estimates the pesticide usage for cotton at closer to 5 percent, according to Cotton Inc., a U.S. trade organization.
In India, where more than 20 percent of the world’s cotton is grown, child labor is common. According to a Harris Poll conducted in 2016, three in five consumers would not purchase a cotton product if they knew it was picked by children or forced labor.
Naithani and others in the business believe that, in time, more consumers will search out organic sheets, towels and clothing. Only 5 percent of consumers purchase organic clothing, slightly higher among millennials, according to Kantar Retail.
At the wholesale level, organic, fair trade cotton costs only about 15 percent more than conventional cotton, Naithani said. He doubles the cost of the goods for his retail price while competitors triple the cost, he said.
The only way to get people to convert to buying organic cotton is to keep prices competitive. “Costco and Wal-Mart have made organic food affordable,” he said. “We want to do the same for organic cotton.”
At $119 for a queen set and $139 for a king set at solorganix.com (after a $40 instant savings), his prices are 30 to 50 percent less than comparable products online, but still nearly double what a conventional set costs at Kohl’s or J.C. Penney.
Naithani hopes to drop the price of his queen-sized set to $99 within two years, once the product reaches critical mass. “Affordability is the tipping point,” he said. “It promotes access, which in turn creates demand and conversion to organic cotton.”
Brett Whitfield sees organic cotton as early in its life cycle but poised for growth. Target and Pottery Barn recently expanded their organic textiles selection. Pottery Barn’s spring collections show fair trade, organic sheets and towels.
Target, which already had organic cotton sheets, clothes and baby items, added organic in its new Cat & Jack kids line. Its recent pledge to remove perfluorinated chemicals and flame retardants from textiles by 2022 shows a long-term commitment.
“We know organic cotton is important to our guests,” said Erika Winkels, a Target spokeswoman. “It will continue to grow in the future, whether it’s home or apparel. It’s not the be-all-end-all, but it’s important.”
Naithani, who also sells his product on Amazon, hopes to break $1 million in annual sheet sales by next month. That’s still a fraction of the online retailer Boll & Branch, which sold about $40 million in organic fair trade sheets and towels in 2016.
Sol’s products are getting four- and five-star reviews online. His return rate is an enviably low 2.5 percent.
“Increasing the demand for organic cotton creates this tremendous upside where everyone wins, the farmer, the consumer and the earth,” he said.