March 2023 News

IOAS, the International Organic Accreditation Service, suspends Control Union India for irregularities in the certification process of organic cotton.

Step Back

The world’s largest producer of organic cotton is India, which accounts for half of the organic cotton sold globally, and where the organic cotton movement seems to be expanding rapidly.

Over time, international trust in India’s ability to oversee organic agriculture has collapsed, highlighting an opaque certification system full of opportunities for fraud.

The role of labels represents a means of signaling value, but what happens if false information is communicated?

“Much of the “organic cotton” that arrives on store shelves may not be organic at all”

This is the assertion of Indian workers who cultivate and follow the processing stages of cotton.

The flow of trading paper

Let’s retrace all the steps that determine a product labelled as Organic Cotton.

As we know, brands rely on official approval stamps from external organizations. Like the gold standard organic cotton label that comes from Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), or the Organic Cotton Standard of Textile Exchange.

In India, as in other cotton-producing countries, a paper transaction certificate is issued each time the cotton is sold along the chain: from the gin to the certified spinner, where the fibres become yarn; to a certified spinner, where the yarn becomes fabric; and forward until it arrives in the form of a shirt or sheet in a store near you.

But neither GOTS nor Textile Exchange carry out inspections alone.

Instead, they use the local offices of international inspection companies, including OneCert, EcoCert, and the giant Control Union (CU).

These local inspection agencies are opaque and base their findings on a single annual planned inspection (in the case of facilities) or some random visits (for farms). They are paid by the same gins, spinners, and farmers they are supposed to oversee.

As there is no central database to look up transaction numbers it is not possible to guarantee that a certificate has not already been used, and organic cotton magically increases more and more.

This system is called “trading paper”, where it is easy to sell a pile of conventional cotton as organic or alter a paper transaction certificate to match the higher volume.

The flow ends up with the local inspection agencies then producing a paper certificate, which is sent to GOTS and Textile Exchange, up to the brands.

CU India case: when credibility is seriously compromised

In recent months, the credibility of these local control agencies has been seriously compromised.

In November 2022, the European Union voted not to accept Indian-certified organic exports from the major companies responsible for organic cotton: Control Union, EcoCert, and OneCert.

In January 2023, the international agency that provides accreditation to organic inspection agencies, IOAS, withdrew OneCert’s ability to inspect and certify cotton transformers for these labels.

Then, in March 2023, the Control Union was suspended.

What are the repercussions?

NGO workers fear that exposing this information would lead to the total collapse of the industry and damage the small subset of farmers who farm organically.

Already, Eileen Fisher has decided not to look the other way anymore. On its website, it describes why it is moving away from certified organic cotton, to better address what the brand calls “an inconvenient truth.”

How did the certifying bodies line up? Here are statements from:

This issue is not limited to India, experts say; questions have been raised about organic cotton from China and Turkey, which represent another quarter of global supply.

What do you think about this situation? Let us know your thoughts.

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