Mankind has used cotton for fabrics and clothing longer than any other fibre - in fact, archaeologists have found evidence of cotton use in Mexican caves that stretch back some 7,000 years.
It's a testament to the fibre's adaptability, durability and usefulness, then, that cotton continues to be used across the world to this very day.
But this high demand requires high yields, which in turn require fertilisers, pest-killers and other tools to ensure that each year's crop can thrive - in fact, cotton accounts for an estimated 25 percent of the world's pesticides.
However, these pesticides, chemical fertilisers and other man-made compounds inevitably pose a threat to the wider environment, often leaching into water supplies and affecting wildlife and humans like.
However, there is a growing trend for consumers to seek out environmentally friendly solutions, such as organic cotton, which is GM-free and grown with natural fertilisers and pest-killers (such as predatory carnivorous insects).
In fact, new analysis from Organic Exchange, a California -based, non-profit organization promoting organic cotton production, suggests that this is having a big effect on the market.
The Organic Exchange's second annual Organic Farm and Fibre Report, which is designed to help everyone from farmers and brokers to manufacturers, brands and government agencies understand the global organic cotton market, claims that the amount of organic cotton produced has increased rapidly in recent years.
The data was collected through July 2007 from organic cotton farming project and other industry sources (certifiers, promotion bodies, academics, companies, government officials, and individual experts).
A 53 percent growth worldwide
It says that the world's production of organic cotton increased by 53 percent from 2005/06 to 2006/07. During the latter period, 57,931 metric tons (MT), or 265,517 bales, were produced in 24 countries on all arable continents.
It says that the top ten organic cotton producing countries were, in order by rank, Turkey, India, China, Syria, Peru, the United States, Uganda, Tanzania, Israel and Pakistan.
Of that, 44.9 percent of the organic cotton was grown in the Middle East (Turkey, Syria and Israel), while approximately one-third - 32.9 percent - was grown in Southeast Asia (India and Pakistan).
LaRhea Pepper, Organic Exchange executive director, said: “The increase in organic cotton production around the world is a direct result of the apparel, home product and personal care industry’s interest in providing products grown in the most sustainable manner possible.
“Organic Exchange believes that demand for organic cotton fibre will remain high, which means more and more farmers can convert to organic production to help manufacturers meet the demand."
Projected future growth
The Exchange says that it used three different growth scenarios to estimate likely increase in organic cotton production, with the results suggesting an increase of 25-55 percent in 2007/08.
Given the popularity of organic cotton use in consumer products, ending stocks of organic cotton are estimated to be only approximately 9,046 MT or 41,461 bales. Ending stocks will likely remain at or lower than current levels in all three scenarios given the tight market.
Growth in organic cotton products
Organic Exchange also predicts increases in organic cotton products sales: its 2006 global report claimed that 2005 saw sales increasing by an estimated 35 percent annually, from $245 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005, and it projects that they will skyrocket to $2.6 billion by the end of 2008.
The top 5 users of organic cotton in 2005 were: Nike (Oregon), Coop Switzerland and Patagonia (California), Otto (Germany), and Sam’s Club/Wal-mart (Arkansas). Organic Exchange will release an updated market analysis in October 2007.
To enable an increase in organic cotton production, Organic Exchange has three main recommendations for the industry. The first of these is increased research into pest management, soil fertility and defoliation practices that comply with organic standards.
It also suggests making solid commitments towards organic production, including forward contracts and partnerships, and increasing the amounts and types of technical, financial and business development assistance available to organic farming projects, particularly those in the developing world and those transitioning to full organic status.