Fashion companies are no stranger to the belief that image is everything. And amid growing concerns about their environmental and social impact, fashion companies are making changes: incorporating more sustainable materials, reviewing and improving worker conditions and wages, and encouraging consumers to repair or resell apparel they no longer want.
Some of these efforts continue to fall short, as reflected in a recent New York Times article that reveals the challenges of confirming that organic cotton is actually organic. To learn more about the challenges of the organic cotton industry and the movement toward sustainability in fashion, I talked with Vikrant Giri, Founder of Gallant International and its subsidiary brand, Terra Thread, which specialize in bags and accessories made of organic cotton. Gallant is a B Corp and has worked with one of India’s most well-known organic cotton co-ops to transition more than 700 farmers to regenerative organic cotton.
While Giri credits the media with drawing attention to the fashion industry’s negative impacts — climate change and human rights among them — he also says it’s important to acknowledge the changes that companies like Gallant International are making in pursuit of more sustainable practices and materials.
“There is no system that is 100% perfect, but I’ve found it’s better to get involved directly with your farmers. Support them. It might cost a little more, but it will add tremendous value to your investment,” he says.
In our conversation, Giri shared how regenerative farming practices help create numerous benefits and boost farmers’ likelihood of success. He also goes on to say that working with farmers directly may actually be the best way to keep organic cotton organic. Through his work with the Regenerative Organic Alliance that was founded by the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s, Giri is a pioneer in helping transform how cotton is farmed across India — one of the largest cotton growing regions in the world. He told me he hopes that the ROC certification will help bring more scrutiny to an industry that’s growing despite its lack of transparency.Christopher Marquis: Tell me a bit about the history of Gallant International. When and why did you start the company? How has it grown as more consumers seek organic cotton products? And could you also tell us about your brand Terra Thread?
Vikrant Giri: I started Gallant International in 2009 because I wanted financial freedom for me and my family. I also wanted to help artisans back in Nepal where I was born, and in India where almost all my family members lived and worked. The business has grown nearly every year, with the exception of 2020 when COVID-19 emerged. In 2019 our business grew by almost 100%; 2020 was less only by about 20% despite all lockdowns. But we did see a growth of more than 30% last year.
Terra Thread is getting some good recognition right now because it is the only backpack and bag brand that specializes in bags made from Fairtrade organic cotton canvas and made in Fair Trade certified factory. Most of the backpacks and bags in the market are made from fossil-fuel-based polyester and nylon. Many corporations are trying to stay away from fossil-fuel-based polyester and nylon, so we are seeing a lot of growth in the corporate gift sector.
Marquis: How did you learn about, and get involved with, the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) and its certification program?
Giri: I heard about the ROA — a group of farmers, business leaders, and experts in soil health — through my involvement with the agriculture-focused nonprofit Rodale Institute. Then I heard even more about it through pioneering brands such as Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s that helped set up the ROA. Plus, I had been working with organic growers in India who have followed standard regenerative practices for quite a long time, so I was already somewhat familiar with the topic.
You see, when I was growing up in Nepal the vegetables I ate were always grown using regenerative farming practices. Simply adding a pinch of salt and green chili powder would make them taste delicious. But here in the United States, even though my family tries to eat organic as much as possible, the vegetables we eat every day are fairly tasteless despite adding a lot of spices. One day I was listening to Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, and he mentioned that regeneratively grown foods taste much better than organic because they have a lot more nutrients. That was the “aha moment” for me.
Marquis: How does the regenerative organic program incorporate and build positive impact along the whole supply chain?
Giri: Growing organic foods and fiber is important: GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and fossil fuel-based carbon intensive fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are all banned from organic farming practices. And this is all great, but the standard organic certification doesn’t even begin to dive into the specific farming practices that protect and build soil health, promote biodiversity, conserve fresh water, or ensure the welfare of animals. It touches on a few of these practices in its guidance documents, but it doesn’t require any of it.
To compare, take a look at what the ROA has developed. A Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is a new certification for food, textiles, and personal-care ingredients that requires an organic certification on top of a more rigorous set of requirements for its farming practices. That’s what’s great about an ROC — it takes its required farming practices much further on the sustainability spectrum and looks at the entire farming system holistically. ROC farms and products must meet standards in what I like to call the holy grail of farm sustainability: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.
The ROC is set up in three certification steps: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. That way farmers have the time to build their practices. Requiring rotational crops and intercropping brings in extra income for the farmers. Agroforestry practices support local ecosystems and form barriers from nearby conventional farms. And minimal tilling prevents disruption to soil biodiversity and helps build soil and retain more water. This is key during monsoons and droughts, which are becoming more and more unpredictable in the subcontinent.
In addition, training farmers in regenerative practices build their resilience to climate change. Fairtrade premiums support much-needed community projects such as access to clean water, training for natural pest control, and other health and education-related projects.
And these cotton farmers who have already shifted to organic farming told me that their family’s health is better today because they are not using synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, anymore, and are thus, living healthier lives. Now with regenerative farming, their foods will be even more nutritious for them, and allow them to continue on this lifestyle for their families and children.
Marquis: Why are programs like this crucial for the expansion of organic farming practices?
Giri: Farmers are becoming more and more vulnerable because of climate change. Unpredictable weather events — droughts, more frequent heavy rains — are creating a situation where farmers do not know when they can plant their crops. It is affecting their yields and ultimately their income and livelihood. In India, we’ve even heard that wild animals like elephants are coming out of the jungles and stomping through farms looking for water and food that is now scarce due to climate change.
Farmer food insecurity is also happening. This is where the price of food spikes up because of weather or other climate-related disasters, making it difficult for farmers to feed their families on an already precarious budget.
Organic and regenerative organic farming will help farmers become more resilient in the face of climate disaster. Many of the benefits I mentioned have given them hope and a fighting chance.
Marquis: How do you plan to work with partners like Chetna Organic, a farmer-owned organization, to encourage more farmers to adopt regenerative organic certified practices as an alternative to GMO cotton?
Giri: Chetna Organic is a pioneer in organic farming and has been expanding over the years. This company is led by the visionary and dedicated Arun Ambatipudi, who is executive director, and CEO Nanda Kumar. Established in 2004 with 234 farmers, Chetna now works with more than 10,000 farmers to grow organic cotton across India. I would attribute their success to how they work directly with their farmers. They provide tools and training, help them buy organic cotton seeds, buy their cotton immediately after harvest, pay them an organic and Fairtrade premium, help generate extra income through intercropping, and they guarantee purchase of their crops. This type of partnership will help join more farmers together and grow the movement. This is all possible due to companies like Gallant who support their efforts.
In addition, I’d like to invite brands here in the US that are committed to sustainable practices and want to help bring about more transparency and equity in the cotton supply chain to join us by working directly with farmers, and specifically with this group of ROC certified farmers in the Chetna co-op. If more fashion brands put their investment in the supply chain, and commit to buying from regenerative growers, we can truly transform how cotton is grown in India. For smaller mission-driven brands, this could be a real win-win because they don’t have to personally manage a complicated global supply chain; instead, we can help facilitate that with this existing infrastructure and they can act upon their values of sustainability with a very small investment.
All of this is integral to not only helping organic farmers transition to regenerative but also encouraging conventional cotton farmers in India to consider going organic. Cotton in India has been dominated by GMO seeds and conventional growing practices. That’s led to farmer suicides, an extensive physical, mention and financial toll on the growers and their families, because they have to purchase seeds every season and additional farming inputs. Plus, they’re dealing with the same environmental challenges as farmers elsewhere. So, we see that this could be instrumental in changing that story, which has plagued Indian cotton farmers for decades. While Gallant International will only sell organic cotton products, we’ll help these farmers make the transition with some additional funding.
Marquis: Given the fashion industry’s poor record on environmental impact and worker/grower wages, will shifting consumer demand be enough to push more apparel companies to adopt better practices?
Giri: We are seeing a lot of fashion companies incorporate and implement many sustainable attributes in their goals, but what bothers me is that many of them claim to be “slow fashion” but try to sell fast and frequently with sales and coupons. I think brands should focus on making durable products and educate the consumers to buy less, similar to how Patagonia does.
I think the media is playing a major role in this by bringing up the issues that need immediate attention, including climate change, human rights, labor exploitation, brands’ ruthless demand for cheap products, and so on. But institutions like B Corp and the Fair Trade Institute are also playing a significant role by talking about the issues and helping implement change through their certification programs. These certifications are pressing issues like transparency and accountability, fair wages, fair price to producers, community development, and environmental footprint, and thus encouraging companies to make products that are good for people and the planet. These kinds of nonprofit organizations’ core values and certification requirements are shifting consumer demand for more sustainable products. We are seeing the younger generations like the millennials and Gen Z demanding sustainable products more than ever.
Brands are being asked more and more about their sustainability practices by customers, civil society organizations, financial institutions, government, and especially investors. The pressure is mounting and this is waking up board rooms and “C-suite” executives.
And everyone needs to do their part. I think being a sustainable brand is a competitive edge. Per company ratings in the investment world for ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance), companies that are doing this work are performing better than those that aren’t. This really is moving brands to start their journey.
Marquis: What other forms of encouragement or policy action could push apparel brands to make these changes?
Giri: As far as government legislation policy goes, I don’t think subsidies are a good idea except for hard-working farmers. I think they should encourage companies to be more sustainable by helping them provide low-interest rates, incentivize companies who support local businesses and farmers, and to use sustainable material.
In India specifically, we’ve also seen certain states commit to organic farming entirely. For example, the eastern state of Sikkim was the first globally to make a commitment to be 100% organic, and now other states are following this example, which we hope will only spread. Since going organic, thousands of farmers in Sikkim have benefited from this move, and the sales of pesticide and many commercial agricultural products has been banned in the state.
Marquis: The organic cotton space is really contentious in some ways. You must have seen the recent article in the New York Times that examines how, even though the organic cotton movement in India appears to be booming, most of that growth is fake. What do you think about that?
Giri: Yes, I’ve seen the article. We all must acknowledge that no system, industry, or profession is 100% perfect. There is much progress made in the sustainable fiber sector including organic cotton. As a result, farmers have been able to avoid diseases brought on by chemical fertilizers and pesticides and are able to leave healthier lives having transition to organic food and cotton. We have seen cases in the past of conventional farmers committing suicide because of debts and disease. However, according to Nanda Kumar, CEO of Chetna Organic, there has not been a case of suicide among Chetna farmer groups due to debt or disease. This is real, not fake progress.
That said, I’ve been using organic cotton that comes directly from farmers, and therefore, it is possible to intimately know one’s supply chain. In fact, there are so many hard-working respectable farmers out there who are following organic practices.
Again, we recognize that no system is perfect, and the fashion industry certainly has work to do. But we are, and have been, committed to keeping track of every step of our supply chain.
In fact, I hope this conversation helps more brands work more directly with farmers, and support them on what they need to grow organically and regeneratively, be it access to seeds, farming tools, training, or guaranteeing to purchase their crops and produce upon harvest. In cotton, specifically, we’ve seen that if farmers can be ensured that their crops will be purchased promptly after harvest, that will encourage them to continue to grow organically. Instead, what we’ve seen in the past, is that sometimes traders can purchase their organic cotton at conventional prices, which means that farmers lose a much valued profit, and are discouraged to continue with organic farming.
So, we have to ultimately, be more involved in our supply chains, particularly with farmers who grow the foundation of all our products.
Marquis: Can you describe how you know your cotton is organic?
Giri: Our producer group Chetna is very thorough on this. With the help of companies like Gallant they first buy organic cotton seeds and provide them directly to the farmers. When Chetna first receives them, they run lab tests on them randomly to ensure they are non-GMO. After that, Chetna collects a few random samples before harvest and sends them to a lab for further testing; this includes the leaves and cotton balls. After harvesting, the raw fiber is tested again, and once again after ginning, there is an additional round of randomized testing to check the cotton’s organic integrity. Chetna has been working with organic cotton farmers for over a decade personally and is so deeply committed to the values that organic farming promotes, that they make extra effort to ensure that farmers and the crop are looked after.