Denim is the coolest part of Indian garment industry and it’s a big business as well. India’s denim apparel market is estimated to be worth `10,980 crore and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 14 percent to reach `21,250 crore by 2018. Despite all innovations in synthetic fibres, cotton is the lead fibre in denims. There are 100 million cotton farmers producing cotton in 80 countries worldwide.


Cotton is a toxic crop. While occupying just 2.5 percent of agricultural land area, it uses 7 percent of the total amount of pesticides used in farming globally each year and 16 percent of all insecticides. More than 90 percent cotton growing in India is Genetically Modified (GM) or Bt cotton. Farmers are gambling their livelihoods and getting into debt in the hope of higher returns using GM cotton. Furthermore, there are many environmental and health concerns associated with processing (spinning, dyeing, printing, fading, finishing etc.) of denim. Some examples are excessive water consumption, discharged waste-water containing colour from dyehouse, risks associated with sand blasting, environment hazards of chemicals used in colour fading like sodium hyposulphite, potassium permanganate etc. Brands, NGOs, consumers and governments across the globe have been looking at more sustainable and eco-friendly options in textiles and chemical industry. There is a growing demand for eco-fashion across the globe, including India.

Organic cotton is free from toxic pesticides, chemical fertilisers and GM seeds. There are legal and private standards governing certification of organic cotton at farm level. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is the worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic agriculture movement.

3.1 Benefits of organic cotton
The pesticides used in growing conventional cotton pollute freshwater lakes and rivers, contaminating drinking water sources and threatening precious ecosystems. Up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year. By eliminating all hazardous toxic pesticides in its production, not just reducing them like other sustainable cotton schemes, organic cotton offers a healthy and sustainable farming future for farmers and their families. Organic takes the toxic impact out of producing cotton. Organic cotton has a lower water footprint too. Eighty percent of organic production is rain fed rather than irrigated, so organic cotton preserves important groundwater stores. A 2010 study by Water Footprint Network in India shows that the grey water footprint of non-organic farms was 98 percent more than that of organic farms. Organic cotton farming uses less energy and healthy organic soils store more CO2. Organic cotton growing produces up to 94 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

3.2 Processing of organic cotton
Twenty percent of freshwater pollution comes from conventional textile dyeing and processing treatments. Different states in India have their Pollution Control Boards that monitor the waste discharge and disposal but there are no uniform rules for textile processing. The problem of water pollution by textile mills is a big challenge. There are no uniform international legal standards for processing of organic fibres. Though China, Brazil and Argentina introduced national organic textile standards at earlier stages, yet they did not gain any considerable impact or recognition.

3.2.1 Suitable processing conditions for organic cotton
Despite absence of binding laws, to maintain the sanctity of the organic fibres, the processing of organic fibres should be done in eco-friendly and human friendly environment. All the major aspects of sustainability ought to be covered like

  • Inputs in processing such as dyes and pigments comply with strict biodegradability and toxicity requirements
  • Factories have functioning waste water treatment plants to protect local ecosystems and water supplies
  • Textile end products do not contain any allergenic, carcinogenic, bio- accumulative or toxic chemical residues
  • Optimum use of energy and water
  • Suitable working conditions must be provided in manufacturing units and a social compliance management system must be set up

The chemical inputs and enzymes having GOTS approval can be trusted for sustainable processing of denim fabric and their availability is not a problem. Two main colourants for denim – indigo blue (natural and synthetic) and sulphur black are readily available in India with GOTS approval. Besides, GM free enzymes for worn out look are available in Indian market. GOTS approval of the dyes and chemicals is a mandatory pre-condition for GOTS certification of the final product like denim fabric or garments.


3.2.2 Ban on sandblasting for garment finishing
Distress, worn-out, used and vintage look is a big hit in denim industry. The conventional method used for this purpose has been sandblasting. Sandblasting involves firing abrasive sand onto denim under high pressure. This process is often performed without proper ventilation, safety equipment or training. The practice exposes workers to serious risk of an incurable lung disease like silicosis, which is caused by inhalation of silica dust. As per news report published by BBC in Oct 2011, 46 garment workers had died from silicosis in Turkey. LS & Co. and H&M were the first apparel companies to prohibit sandblasting to make their products. Since social compliance is an important component of GOTS criteria, GOTS has banned sand blasting since March 2011 (version 3.0).

3.2.3 Sustainable alternatives to sandblasting
A popular method currently being used in the industry to get worn-out look is enzyme wash. The flip side of the story is that most of the commercially available enzymes are Genetically Modified (GM). Many organisations and individuals have strong concerns about the use of the genetic engineering considering problems that have already arisen and the unknown and uncertain long-term effects and risks on the environment. GOTS also does not allow the use of GM enzymes in organic fibres’ processing.
The good news is that there are enzyme preparations available in the market, which are GMO free and GOTS approved as well. These enzymes can be used to get a vintage look on the denim garments without posing risk to workers or the environment. Therefore, a conscious jeans manufacturer can make a choice to use ecological inputs for its manufacturing process.

Many small and big brands are making sustainability claims. From farm to retail, it’s important that sustainability claims have credibility and traceability. Third party certification gives brands and consumers the confidence to know that their claims and choices are trustworthy and making a real impact. Buyers and consumers must insist on a third party certificate instead of self- declarations.

4.1 NPOP certificate (fibre/ crop)
National Program for Organic Production (NPOP) is governed by APEDA, a statutory body under Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India. NPOP is the legal standard governing organic cotton cultivation (at farm) in India. NPOP is having equivalence with European Union for organic unprocessed plant products. NOP certificate is required for exports to the USA.

4.2 GOTS certification (ginning to retail)
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is governed by Global Standard gGmbh, a not for profit organisation with its headquarters in Germany. GOTS is the world’s leading organic textile ‘processing’ standard. GOTS certification offers independent assurance to consumers that organic fibres have been processed in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

Some key features of GOTS are:

  • Minimum 70 percent certified organic fibre
  • Certification, ‘mass balancing’ and traceability at every stage of production
    Inputs like dyes, pigments, inks, auxiliaries, enzymes controlled via GOTS approval process, which includes biodegradability and toxicity requirements
  • End product testing for hazardous chemical residues
  • Ban on hazardous processes like sandblasting and ammonia treatment
  • Regulations for effluent treatment and waste water discharge
  • Ban on child labour, forced labour and excessive overtime. Criteria on women safety and hygiene included in inspection

4.3 OCS certification (ginning to retail)
Organic Content Standard (OCS) is governed by Textile Exchange, USA. It relies on third-party verification to verify a final product contains the accurate amount of a given organically grown material. It does not address the use of chemicals or any social or environmental aspects of production beyond the integrity of the organic material. It covers the traceability of organically grown fibre through the supply chain. It enables ‘Organically Grown Cotton’ claims to be made on final products in two different label grades. For both GOTS and OCS, traceability and mass calculations are maintained through Transaction Certificates (TC) and waste considerations at each processing step. Under version 4.0 of GOTS, (which is applicable since Mar 2014) TCs are mandatory.

4.4 Fairtrade international
Fairtrade standard is governed by Fairtrade International (FLO). It provides an added guarantee that farmers have received a fair price that covers the minimum cost of production. Besides, FLO implements valid social criteria based on International Labour Organisation (ILO) in fibre production. Therefore, a “GOTS and Fairtrade” certified textile product provides the upmost sustainable benefit since it covers, besides all GOTS aspects, social criteria and fair prices at the farm level also. As per Fair Trade Annual Report 2011-12, 19 percent of fairtrade cotton was organically produced.

4.5 Organic cotton blends and label grades
Organic cotton can be blended with other fibres (similar to conventional cotton) and has same chemical nature from processing point of view. From certification point of view, OCS has two label grades, OCS100 (min. 95 percent organic fibre) and OCS blended (min. 5 percent organic fibre). In GOTS, two label grades are there, organic (min. 95 percent organic fibre) and made with (x) percent organic (70- 94 percent organic fibre). For products with less than 70 percent organic fibre content, GOTS certificate cannot be issued.

4.5.1 Elastane or spandex blend
Elastane or spandex is a synthetic fibre, well known for its elastic properties. It is known by many brand names like Lycra, Inviya, Creora etc. It is the highest used fibre for blending with cotton in denim garments. From certification point of view, upto 5 percent elastane can be used in both GOTS – organic grade and OCS100. Thereafter, being a synthetic fibre, it would be limited to maximum 10 percent in GOTS – made with (x) percent organic grade, while synthetic fibres can be used upto 95 percent for OCS blended.

4.5.2 Recycled polyester
Polyester is the second highest used fibre for blending with cotton in denim fabrics. Being a synthetic fibre produced from petrochemicals, it has its own set of sustainability and biodegradability issues. Recycled polyester can be a great saviour here. In the 2014 GPNI consumer survey in India, it has been highlighted that 21percent respondents from India related with the ‘Green Products’ as ‘Recycled’.

Both pre-consumer and post- consumer waste can be used to manufacture recycled synthetic fibres. The standards mostly used to certify recycled fibres are Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and Recycled Content Standard (RCS).
In version 4.0, released in March 2014, GOTS has endorsed recycled synthetic fibres by allowing them to be used upto 30 percent of the main fabric to be used in final textile products. This rule is applicable both to denim and non-denim fabrics.

Followed by detox campaign of Greenpeace International, brands formed a conglomerate with a vision to completely eliminate the hazardous chemicals from their supply chain by year 2020. This is known as Zero Discharge of Harmful Chemicals (ZDHC) Group. A highly ambitious roadmap has been published and brands are working together with suppliers, industry experts and consultants to achieve these goals. World’s top denim brands like Levis, Zara, H&M, Esprit, G-Star Raw, Gap Inc, Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation (PVH) etc. have joined ZDHC. Apart from zero chemical discharge, many brands have committed to source at least 20 percent of their supplies from sustainable cotton sources. This scenario presents a great opportunity to Indian denim manufacturers. India is the largest producer of organic cotton in the world. Eco-friendly chemical inputs are available and more research is going on. Using organic cotton and following environment and social compliances can make you qualify for both requirements viz, sustainable cotton and low chemical discharge. A reputed third party certification can be used as a legitimate proof of your company’s compliance to standard requirements. As the brands have set intermediate targets for 2015, the best time to act is ‘NOW’. There are more than 15 certified organic denim fabric manufacturers in India but certified garment manufacturers are just a few. Timely action can position your brand as a frontrunner in the organic denim garments section.

In 2012, global market for organic textiles was 7.4 billion USD. Globalorganic cotton production was 109,818 metric ton in 2013, 73.6 percent of which came from India. H&M, C&A, Tchibo, Coop Swiss, Target, Zara were among top ten users of organic cotton by volume in 2013. Some of these brands have also signed on to ZDHC, so the chemical compliance is monitored along with organic cotton usage. Separate figures for organic denim industry are not available at the moment.

6.1 Premium in organic cotton
Organic cotton may fetch a ‘price premium’ from 5-50 percent above conventional cotton. This premium can range depending on a number of factors, such as market conditions, arrangements between supply chain partners and product quality etc. Denim brands and retailers can make sound investments by opting to take a long term view. Building relationships with suppliers and committing to purchase in advance benefits everyone. Long term commitments eliminate risks and bring price stability.

In the 2014 GPNI consumer survey in India, 90 percent respondents were aware of the term ‘green products’.
Collectively 62 percent related with the term as organic, non-toxic, biodegradable and water positive; while 21 percent favoured recycled.
Denim jeans made of organic cotton and recycled polyester would be a direct hit with the green consciousness of the thoughtful consumer. The seller can cash in on this green consciousness and also establish itself as a sustainable brand. Given the fact that the third party standard does offer a benefit and there is a personal value for the customer, the purchasing decision is influenced by the label.
Compared to non-organic cotton and entry level schemes such as CMiA and BCI, organic is recognised as the highest standard for sustainable cotton production. In Textile Exchange’s continuum of sustainable cotton, organic is top because it delivers the highest environmental and socio-economic benefits, and the production standards are independently certified.
By understanding the business case for sustainability, one can work towards reaching environmental, social and economic goals simultaneously.
Environmental and social aspects need to be integrated in the principal strategy of the company to boost its economic success.