Turkey is one of the largest, fastest growing and most promising cotton producing countries in the world. Beyond this, it’s also becoming a world leader in organic cotton.
As the consumers become more environmentally conscious and brands rush to create more sustainable collections, Turkey has a rare opportunity to make a name for itself as a sustainable cotton producer and garment manufacturer.
How exactly could it reach this pinnacle?
We’ll explore the historical factors, and the modern-day environmental, economic, and political advances that make this idea feasible.
Conventional cotton currently has a global market value of 378.6 billion USD, while organic cotton makes up a mere 2% of the market, at 8.9 billion USD. Yet it’s estimated that the organic cotton market will continue to grow by 31% per year, fueled by increasing demand from conscious brands and consumers.
A little background.
Turkey’s long history of cotton production stretches back to antiquity. Because of its warm climate and rich soil it has ideal conditions for the cultivation of cotton.
For centuries, the tradition of hand-weaving was passed down from generation to generation. Every Turkish family had a loom in their homes. The women wove for the house and the men wove for the palace or commercially.
With the arrival of industrial-made textiles dominating the marketplace, this tradition of hand-weaving began to die out. However, the production of cotton increased tremendously and Turkey now ranks as the top country in Europe and seventh in the world for conventional cotton production, with an average production of 850,000 tons per year.
The amount of organic cotton certification is one key indicator of the country’s shift towards organic production.
With time and changes in consumer behaviour, organic cotton also grew in importance, making Turkey one of the most important organic cotton producers in the world after India and Bangladesh. If we consider GOTS — the Global Organic Textile Standard — Turkey is the country with the 3rd most GOTS certified facilities worldwide, with a total of 858 companies certified to organic and social responsibility standards.
Many Turkish suppliers have additional certifications: 774 Turkish suppliers have the OCS (Organic Content Standard), which includes OE 100 and OE Blended standards, and 1371 have the OEKO-TEX certification.
Turkish environmental & social policies.
Sourcing sustainably isn’t only beneficial for the environment, but also for workers in the fashion industry. It is better for their health, and organic cotton workers tend to be better paid when compared to conventional cotton cultivation.
The Republic of Turkey Ministry of Development Southeastern Anatolia Regional Development Administration in Turkey and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) see organic farming as fundamental to eliminate poverty and develop sustainably in parts of the country that are suffering economically.
How exactly? Well, the textile industry is one of the most critical sectors in Turkey in terms of employment generation, exports, and contribution to gross domestic product (GDP).
There are approximately 40,000 companies in the Turkish garment sector that employ an estimated workforce of 750,000.
Turkey also has many different environmental laws, such as the CLP Regulation, which limits the use of chemicals that can be harmful for people or the environment. Both these environmental and social policies position Turkey to be a world leader in organic cotton production.
Market access to the European Economic Area.
Turkey’s proximity to the European market is also one of the reasons why its location is ideal for growing organic cotton. Europe is one of the biggest markets in the world, with over six million tonnes of clothing consumed on a yearly basis, as well as being a major consumer of organic textiles.
Turkey’s closeness to European customers offers easy access, faster delivery times and (allegedly) a lower carbon footprint. Although the carbon footprint is debatable since, as some sources highlight, Turkish textile exports still produce as many carbon emissions as India. However, compared to China, Turkey’s textile exports produce 40% less carbon emissions. More important perhaps, is how the energy is generated and whether the garments are transported by air or ship.
There is also a customs union between Turkey and the European Union, that allows the goods to travel between the two areas without any customs restrictions.
Since Turkey not only grows the fibres, but also handles processing and sewing, it offers a more simplified alternative to global production. Turkey has significant manufacturing capacity. For instance, the Upper Mesopotamia region is one of the most inexpensive processing regions close to major markets in Europe, which makes it a very interesting option for manufacturing textiles. That’s also why big fashion brands like Inditex, Primark, H&M or Nike choose to produce many of their garments in Turkey.
Barriers to growth.
Unfortunately, like most cotton producing countries, there is rarely any supply chain communication between the companies and the farmers from the cotton fields. Very few brands have an idea of who is making their clothes and where exactly. Perhaps this is one of Turkey’s biggest challenges, and also biggest opportunities.
Issues with Smuggled Cotton from Turkmenistan
A report from Anti-Slavery International presents a problem that the Turkish cotton industry is facing due to the lack of supply chain traceability. Turkmenistan is known to smuggle Turkmen cotton produced by forced labour into the Turkish cotton supply chain. Every year during the cotton harvest season, the Turkmen Government sends citizens into the cotton fields against their will, forcing them to leave their jobs and families to harvest cotton in very poor conditions, often with limited access to fresh drinking water.
Once in Turkey, products containing Turkmen cotton enter the global supply chain and are eventually sold in stores all over the world as Turkish cotton.
The opportunity to become a global source of trusted sustainable cotton and clothing.
This traceability issue is not unique to Turkey — other parts of the world and numerous sectors experience similar problems, which could be easily solved with more traceability and transparency in supply chains.
One example of a company trying to prove that their organic cotton is sourced from Turkey is Etisha Collective, a start-up from Berlin. They create towels that are sustainable and ethically-made, all while supporting traditional Turkish weavers. They are now undertaking a traceability project with us here at Threadcounts, where customers can scan a QR code to view their Product Passport, and understand the story of their sustainable towel.
On the whole, Turkey is a country with an impressive history of both cotton production and manufacturing. There is huge potential for it to become the world leader in organic cotton production, satisfying the increase in demand from conscious brands and customers. Its proximity to major markets like Europe offers easy access, quick delivery times and few customs issues. Nevertheless, it is necessary to have greater supply chain transparency to ensure cotton is from a trusted source.
With this transparency in place, Turkey has the opportunity to establish their reputation as a leading organic cotton producer and become the place where brands look first when sourcing sustainably.
Mara García de Juan is originally from Madrid, Spain, but her fascination for languages led her to live in France, Italy, and Germany. She is interested in fashion and its effects on the environment, which inspired her to pursue a career in sustainable fashion. She now works as a Project Researcher for Threadcounts and studies Sustainable Business Administration at Alanus Hochschule.