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Cotton Incorporated: Bring on new FTC Green Guides

Posted 07.16.2008

(WASHINGTON)  Even as a speaker from Cotton Inc. expressed strong support for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to develop new green marketing standards for textiles, some believe the trade group is already exaggerating green marketing claims.
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Organic cotton shorts and T-shirts, made in Bangalore.

Dr. Patricia O’Leary, a senior director of the federally funded trade group spoke Tuesday at the FTC’s third workshop on revising the decade-old Green Guides for environmental marketing. She told the group of workshop attendees that cotton is “natural, renewable, responsible and green.”

An anonymous audience member asked a written question of O’Leary: “How can you claim that all cotton is green?” She responded, “Knowing how far our industry has come over the years, a green claim is okay. USDA regulates cotton as a food product, and their data show less than one tenth of an ounce of pesticides is used per 100 lbs of cotton.”

Another audience member questioned, “Cotton clothing requires more power for cleaning and drying than other textiles, how can you say it’s green?”

“Clearly, we need clarification from the FTC Green Guides,” O’Leary said.

According to Cottoninc.com, this issue is bringing up similar questions in the U.K.: Recently, the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) in the United Kingdom called for the ban of the Cotton USA advertisements that claimed cotton was “soft, sensual and sustainable,” citing that there was no “universally accepted definition for sustainability.” Therefore, the ASA concluded the claim was misleading. To clarify the ASA’s ruling, the question was not whether U.S. cotton is sustainable, but what the word sustainable means.

Also speaking at the workshop was LaRhea Pepper, an organic cotton farmer from Texas, and executive director of the Organic Exchange. She told Kevin Tuerff of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting, “Consumers assume a label stating ‘Made with organic fiber’ means the product is processed according to the USDA organic program rules, but they are not.”

Pepper says companies like Wal-Mart and Nike have helped the U.S. organic cotton industry grow by 44 percent in 2005 to $160 million.

Another panelist, Kathleen Huddy, researcher for Good Housekeeping Research Institute said, “Our magazine readers (about 24 million women) believe green claims are confusing and suspicious. We’re seeing a proliferation of ‘greenwashed’ products.”

“If a consumer sees a textile product marked as organic, they think the product has been made in an environmentally sound manner from start to finish, not just how the cotton was grown,” Huddy continued.

“Most consumers don’t know Section V of the FTC Act protects them,” she said. “Proof of substantiation is required.”

The FTC workshop moderator asked the panelists what their agencies could be doing to address these problems. Pat Slaven, textiles researcher for Consumer Reports said, “Send out the Green Guides and then slap offenders with a fine. Cotton and rayon manufacturers are going to try green marketing, wondering, ‘How long can we get away with this before FTC comes after me?’”