WSU Professor researches the sustainability of Cotton

PULLMAN, WA - For many, buying "organic" means to pay a little more at the grocery store, but shouldn't stop with food.

Many people are willing to fork over some extra cash for food that has the "organic" label, but do consumers care if their clothes are organic? Joan Ellis, an associate professor of Washington State University's Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles Department says yes.

"If there's a history of organic consumption, then they're willing to continue that consumer behavior from the grocery store into the apparel market," said Ellis.

In 2009, Ellis started a pilot research project to find out which students will pay for an organic upgrade, and how much.

"Students that thought that organics were of better quality were willing to pay more," said Ellis.

The pilot research project showed that students are willing to spend about 25% more on an organic cotton t-shirt than a regular, conventional cotton t-shirt, even though the two look exactly alike, and the conventional cotton is even a little bit softer.

More than three years later, Ellis is taking her research a step farther, to see which kind of sustainability cause people are willing to support.

"There's really three legs to the sustainability stool," said Ellis. "There's social sustainability, there's economic sustainability, and there's environmental sustainability, and that's what these are getting at."

Ellis is also collaborating with researchers at North Carolina State University, to see which cause brings in the most cash.

"I would certainly like to see a lot more people pay a lot more for organic cotton, because it's just so much better on the environment," said Ellis.

Ellis said cotton accounts for about an eighth of the world's agricultural land, but it consumes about a quarter of the pesticides. But for a cotton farmer, it's not easy being green.

"Your field has to go fallow for a certain amount of time in order to rid the product, the ground of all the pesticides and the fertilizers and all that," said Ellis. "It is more expensive and much more labor intensive."

Ellis hopes to continue expanding her research, and prove to cotton farmers and manufacturers, that "buying organic" is worth the extra dollar.

"And reducing the footprint that our industry has," said Ellis. "So that's the big picture."