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Natural Fibers Versus Synthetic Fibers: Patagonia And Levi Strauss Say Organic Cotton 'Sucks'

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The Commonwealth Club and Huffington Post San Francisco present Commonwealth Club Thought Leaders, an ongoing series of insights from the most interesting people in the Bay Area. Read the summary below and watch the video above—then share your thoughts.

By John Zipperer

As a growing number of consumers focus on the environmental impact of the products they buy and use, some leading clothing companies say that natural materials aren’t automatically the best answer.

Rick Ridgeway, vice president of environmental initiatives at outdoor apparel firm Patagonia, told The Commonwealth Club that his company launched a "footprint assessment" of the fibers it uses, and "we had assumed that the synthetic fibers in our products were going to be the bad guys and the natural fibers were going to be the good guys, and it was just the opposite."

"The biggest footprint and impact of all was traditionally grown cotton and its use of pesticides and insecticides," he said.

That didn’t stop Southern California-based Patagonia from pursuing organics, but it made the company aware that it wasn’t a simple black-and-white issue. San Francisco’s own Levi Strauss & Co. also found that a shift to organics would be a long and winding road.

"Our focus is on better cotton, as opposed to organic," said Chip Bergh, Levi’s president and CEO. He noted that there is a lot of consumer confusion about what is organic and what isn't, so Levi’s "has really shifted … our emphasis to better cotton, which is [a] focus on sustainable farming techniques to reduce the use of water in growing cotton." The company wants to continue to increase the amount of this "better cotton” into its products over time.

"Better cotton –- we're not even marketing it," he said. "That's the right thing for us to be doing."

Years ago, Patagonia began to introduce increasing amounts of organically grown cotton into its products, switching over to a complete commitment to organics in 1996. Were its customers receptive? Not quite.

"Our sales dropped 20 percent. It almost bankrupted [the company], especially the sportswear part of our business," Ridgeway remembered.

Ridgeway said that Patagonia then began working with farmers to train them in organic farming. It took two more years to get them certified, so for "about three years, we were losing money." But the company then returned to its previous levels of sales, and "it's been a continual improvement since then."

So "where are we now?" Ridgeway asks. "Organically grown cotton still sucks because of the water issue. It's a bigger problem than the pesticides and insecticides."

For more thought leaders, visit The Commonwealth Club of California.

Video editor: Mehroz Baig

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