White t-shirt stories are…
A series of candid conversations with creatives, uncovering their values and style.
Sanne Nørgaard is..
Managing Director of By Green Cotton, a daughter company of Green Cotton Group, a company group of pioneers who gave the world its first certified organic T-shirt.
EON: I think a white t-shirt is a staple in most wardrobes. I’m wondering whether you agree and also, what other elements form part of your wardrobe on a day-to-day basis?
SN: Well a white t-shirt of course is part of everybody’s wardrobe I think! I myself have some basic items that I always use, like black trousers and shirts for business. For everything else I am like most people: a slight slave to fashion, as I too like to buy things each season.
EON: Your father, Leif Nørgaard, founded Green Cotton Group (formally known as Novotex), a company whose focus has been the development of organic cotton. Has your attitude to clothing changed much over the years, as you’ve learned more about the industry?
SN: Yes it has actually. Of course, I grew up being aware of the problems in the industry and also being aware of the ways that they could be solved. But when you are young and stupid, you do your own thing anyway!
I started working at the company when I was 28. At that point I of course knew about organic cotton as well as the problems in the industry in general but when I started, I had to learn all about textiles from the beginning. I started to learn about quality for example, which is something separate. There is no use in buying something that is environmentally friendly if it’s poor quality and you throw it out after 3 months.
I became even more aware of things when I had my kids. You start to get more and more into it and really understand how you can make a difference.
EON: Do you think that as a global society our knowledge of the fashion industry, and therefore our views on it, are changing?
SN: I think in general our knowledge is still really low, but if I were to pick out one country as being more forward thinking it would be Germany.
They are very much into documentation. As a society, they tend to trust labeling and what the company says and this, in turn, makes consumers more educated about their garments and the systems behind clothing manufacture.
Our own brand, Fred’s World, makes organic childrenswear. In Denmark, we compete with normal clothing companies because we are in the same shops as them but in Germany they have ‘bio shops’. These shops stock exclusively organic clothing, so people actually make a choice to buy organic before they enter and brands in this case, only compete with other organic brands. So Germany is just a bit further ahead than the rest of Europe in that way, I suppose.
There are pros and cons to this approach but it just says something about their society and the way that they are moving.
EON: If you had to explain what organic cotton was to somebody who knew very little about the textile industry, how would you describe it?
SN: Well if you’re only talking about organic cotton then it’s a crop like tomatoes or apples. It is only organic in its plant state. But if you’re talking about clothing then you can’t talk organic anymore. You can’t make an organic t-shirt because when you make a t-shirt it is an industrial product.
It’s like when you have an organic apple. If you make it into an apple pie, you can’t call it organic anymore.
During the first two years of Fred’s World, I told people we didn’t do ‘organic clothing’, we did clothing made of organic cotton. But people didn’t really understand. So after two years I gave in and also because all our competitors described their products as ‘organic childrenswear’. But I still feel in my stomach that it is really wrong. So now we do write ‘organic childrenswear’, but if anybody asks and wants to know more they get this speech!
I always try to say to people don’t just look for organic cotton, look for something in addition to that in the labeling. If it’s Green Cotton it’s a lifecycle approach, if it’s GOTS it is also a lifecycle approach, you have to look at it from a wider perspective.
In Denmark now, the rules are that if you want to use the term ‘organic cotton’ in your marketing, you have to prove that you are amongst the top 5% of the best brands who use it. You can’t do that without all kinds of proof. You can’t do it without certification or without labeling etc so that is becoming more important.
EON: On a global scale, approximately, what percentage of cotton is grown organically?
SN: Oh it’s so small. I don’t know the exact figure but it is so, so small.
EON: What’s holding it back from being a larger percentage?
SN: It’s a good question. I think if you asked brands, they would say that there’s no demand and if you asked the consumer, they’d say it’s too difficult to find.
EON: So it’s a chicken and egg situation?
SN: Yes. I think for the manufacturer of the cotton, it is more a question of how can they do it? The transition period from producing non-organic cotton to certifiable organic cotton takes around 5 years. So there’s a 5 year period when farmers have a reduced crop (organic produces a smaller crop), but they can’t get the higher price because they can’t prove certification on it.
There are some initiatives to help them in this conversion period, GOTS have labeling for example indicating cotton ‘in conversion’.
I think in the end though, it’s the brands that need to decide to use organic cotton in their collections, because that is really what will encourage change.
EON: You’ve mentioned the GOTS certification before as being the highest standard right now. Do you do any of your own research within the company into things that you think need to be improved?
SN: I think GOTS have a chapter about working conditions but I think it could be much better. We’ve started to work with the Fair Wear Foundation on work ethics and working conditions. It’s generally not such a big issue for us because we have our own factory, where we know how we treat people. But I have to source some things in India for example and it’s a concern for us, so we go there and visit the places ourselves. We try to be extra cautious.
EON: What do you think the biggest problem facing the textile industry is today? Is it waste, chemical usage, water consumption, working conditions…?
SN: That’s a good question because there are so many issues in it. The working conditions in the textile industry are horrible.
If we look at CO2 levels alone though for example, it is actually the washing of garments at home that seriously contributes to the high levels. 75% of the electricity used during a t-shirt’s lifetime, is during this phase.
Waste levels have got a lot of attention right now and if clothes were simply better quality, there would be less waste. The point is that there are so many issues that are connected and that is why taking a lifecycle approach to clothing manufacture is better than just looking into particular things.
EON: What other brands and organizations manufacturing their clothing in a responsible way, do you like?
SN: Well for sports I like Patagonia because they’re honest. Sometimes they do not succeed at something 100%, but then they talk about it and that’s a big step. There is a German brand called Armed Angels that I like and then, of course, Penny’s t-shirts!
I think we shouldn’t forget though the initiatives by the bigger companies like Nike and Hennes & Mauritz because even though we think they could do so much more, by them just doing a little thing, is a big thing, you know what I mean?
Of course we should all aim high and try to be pioneers, but if we really want to make a change in the world, we need the big corporations to do something too. By H&M using just 10% organic cotton in their collections, it is the same usage as thousands of smaller brands put together, so we need them. We also need Nike to look into working conditions and things like that. I think these companies need to be supported and they need to see that as consumers, we like what they are doing.
Just having these influential brands talking about conscious fashion makes it more fashionable to be a conscious consumer.