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GOTS Challenges NYT Exposé on Role in India’s Organic Cotton Scandal

The Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS) organization has taken the New York Times to task over its representation in an article headlined “That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think.”

The story published in the Times Sunday edition claimed that “the organic cotton movement in India appears to be booming, but much of this growth is fake, say those who source, process and grow the cotton.”

A key aspect of the Times exposé was a 2009 discovery by India’s agricultural export agency of “wide-scale fraud in the country’s cotton belt, with entire villages certifying genetically modified cotton as organic.” The Times said Sunday that it contacted “Control Union, EcoCert, OneCert, GOTS, Textile Exchange and a half dozen major brands who tout their sustainable cotton commitments,” and the brands pointed to their affiliation with Cotton Connect and the Organic Cotton Accelerator, which both offered genetically modified-seed testing programs as proof the cotton they source for clients is organic.

The Times article said in India, as well as other cotton-producing countries, “GOTS and Textile Exchange certification starts at the gin, where the cotton fiber is separated from the seed. A paper transaction certificate is issued each time the cotton is sold along the supply chain: from the gin to a certified spinner, where the fibers become thread; to a certified mill, where the threads become fabric; and on until it lands in the form of a shirt or sheet set in a store near you.”

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“But neither GOTS nor Textile Exchange performs inspections themselves,” the Times article said. “Instead, they use the local offices of international inspection businesses, including OneCert, EcoCert and the behemoth Control Union, which certifies more than 100 programs in 70 countries, to verify claims.”

In a press release issued Tuesday, Holger Stripf, GOTS head of marketing, clarified that GOTS is not a farm standard and therefore does not certify cotton. Instead, GOTS is a stringent voluntary global standard for the entire post-harvest processing of apparel and home textiles made with certified organic fiber and includes both environmental and social criteria.

The Times said these businesses, “which are paid by the very ginners, spinners and farmers they are supposed to be policing, visit farms, test seeds for GMO contamination, and once a year inspect and verify the facilities that process, spin, weave, dye and sew the garments. They then produce a paper certificate, which is sent to GOTS and Textile Exchange, who pass on the paper to clothing manufacturers, who pass it on to brands.”

“Insiders call this system ‘trading paper,’ and say that at each step, there is little to stop a facility from selling a pile of conventional cotton as organic, then changing a paper transaction certificate to match the larger volume,” the article stated. “Inspectors visit once a year only to verify that a facility is capable of following protocol for keeping organic cotton separate…they do not inspect all the cotton moving through.”

However, Stripf said, “GOTS is not funded by brands. GOTS is an independent non-profit organization. GOTS finances itself through annual fees of 150 euros [$170] per certified facility. Each of the approximately 12,000 certified facilities worldwide, regardless of size, pays the same amount.”

“Consumers can be confident that the cotton in a GOTS-certified product is organic,” he said. “GOTS only allows fibers to enter the supply chain that are certified according to the standards of the IFOAM family and that have gone through mandatory checks. However, to prevent possible fraud on farm level, GOTS goes a step further and requires that seed cotton entering the GOTS supply chain is tested for the presence of genetically modified organisms according to the applicable ISO protocol. Additionally, GOTS-approved certification bodies include further testing (such as pesticide residue) according to their risk assessment and are fully authorised to reject material that does not meet GOTS requirements.”

Stripf noted that before certification bodies issue a Transaction Certificate (TC), GOTS requires that a thorough assessment takes place. Among other things, it is mandatory to perform a plausibility check in the form of volume reconciliation. To strengthen integrity and traceability, GOTS also requires that the Farm Transaction Certificate number appears on the first GOTS TC at the ginning plant.

The Times article also said that in October 2020, as concerns grew about the credibility of organic cotton certification, GOTS announced that it had uncovered a fraudulent scheme by certain producers to create fake government-approved transaction certificates and websites. GOTS banned 11 companies from its system, which affected at least 20,000 tons of organic cotton fiber, one-sixth of India’s total output.

“When asked where Textile Exchange gets data reporting this huge growth, LaRhea Pepper, CEO of Textile Exchange, did not answer,” the article stated. “Instead, she said: ‘There’s people working within the system that are doing a great job. There’s also people that are making claims on products that have no verification that are working outside the system. And we have no control over what they say or what they do.’”

“GOTS points to its ban on producers engaged in certificate forgery as proof of its credibility,” the article continued. “It maintains that no other types of fraud occur in its system.”

Stripf countered that “the fact that ONECERT’s GOTS accreditation was withdrawn is proof that this control system works.”

The Times article said Pepper claimed her organization finds fraud such as nonexistent farm groups or fake farmers’ names listed on scope certificates, and has passed on evidence to GOTS. The Times wrote that a GOTS representative said that it acted on substantial documentary evidence of fraud and that its approved certification bodies had not reported any irregularities.

Stripf said regarding the “alleged quote’ made by Pepper that “GOTS has not received any evidence of fraud, whether from Textile Exchange or other partners, since uncovering fraud in India in 2020 through its own research.”

“GOTS imposed a certification ban on 11 companies (affecting 20,000 tons of cotton, one sixth of India’s total production) and terminated the contract with an approved certification body,” he said. “We have repeatedly banned dubious companies from the GOTS system and published this information. We are eager to see such evidence, as GOTS consistently acts against such proof and imposes strict sanctions such as certification bans.”

Stripf said to further strengthen the GOTS system, the organization is currently developing a central database that will track the origin of not only organic cotton but also other organic materials. It will cover the entire GOTS chain, from the first processing steps to the final products.

“To remain independent of economic interests, we have applied for public funding for the development of the database,” he added. “Although this slows the development, our independence is worth it.”