ITOCHU started handling Indian organic cotton in 2000. On our visit to India to interview farmers in 2007, we realized the difficulties farmers were facing while shifting to organic farming. To encourage farmers to shift from conventional to organic farming, we started promoting organic cotton in conversion and the initiative was named Pre Organic Cotton Program (POC). To achieve an environmental and human conscious cotton industry, we deal with both organic cotton and POC as an integrative approach.
Q: What is your main focus at the moment?
To increase traceability, we identify ginners and suppliers. Contamination-free cotton by hand has been provided to KURABO INDUSTRIES since 2015 and its supply is up to 624ton in 2018. Managing the supply chain from suppliers to retailers is our top priority. For example, for UNY, a huge Japanese retailer, we built a traceable supply chain from identified ginner/spinner through to knitter in Vietnam, and garments to the store in final. The amount has been increasing 30% every year since 2015. We continue the Pre Organic Cotton Program by through focusing on our purchase volume rather than direct operations at the farm level. Increasing awareness of in-conversion is one of our challenges.
Q: Any inspiring stories you can share from your work in this sector?
MUJI now uses nearly 100% organic cotton and has expanded the market portion of organic cotton in Japan for many years. Department stores and mass retailers are following this trend and they are ordering rapidly increasing quantities of organic cotton through us. One remarkable point is that demand for traceability from farm to fabric is increasing and it is becoming highly appreciated. It proves awareness for sustainability has developed in the Japanese market more than we expected. For example, in 2012, Nishikawa, a Japanese bedding brand, initiated a traceability operation of its organic cotton cultivated at Nishikawa Cotton farm in Gujarat, India, so that they can indicate the product background to consumers.
Q: What trends are you seeing in the organic cotton sector?
We are the witness of environmental issues changing the world rapidly, such as micro plastics, recycled polyester and SDGs. They have changed consumers’ awareness of organic cotton, which used to be something special but now it is more broadly accepted. Lee, an apparel brand from EDWIN, has a denim manufacturer in Tokyo which adopted Pre Organic Cotton (POC) in 2008, and has continued using POC, organic cotton, and non-GMO materials in their products since then. They are trying to achieve 100% use of those materials in all of their products.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face in this work?
POC program started in 2008 with 300 MT of demand and grew t0 more than 900 MT in 2012. However, since then, market demand has dramatically shifted in organic cultivation. Production of organic cotton decreased while demand for BCI increased. We have a totally different point of view for POC and organic cotton, but we realize we should promote not only organic cotton itself but organic cotton within the sustainable cotton category. Organic cotton is a fundamental first step to achieving a sustainable society. For the next step, we have to build collaborative supply chains with apparel brands to encourage sustainable consumption and promotion of in-conversion cotton.
Q: Tell us your vision for the organic cotton sector.
Cotton farming was originally organic; however, science and technology changed it dramatically with genetically modified seed and agricultural chemicals including pesticides. This development changed farming methods a lot, as we cannot go back to the original farming method, but we are trying to promote how important it is to expand the global organic cotton market, establish a sustainable textile industry and protect people who are suffering from harmful agricultural chemicals. To make this happen, ITOCHU Corporation will collaborate in organic cotton and POC with retail brands, promoting to retailers and consumers how fashionable it is.