Monday, August 23, 2004

Organic Cotton and Kobe Beef

Some people think it's a little wacky to make such a big deal over organic cotton when regular, non-organic cotton is so much cheaper. Now, some people like organic cotton because they like to feel like they're helping out "the environment". They do it because they think it's the moral thing to do. Some of those people understand what sort of environmental effects organic cotton has; but in my experience most of them don't, they just do it because it gives them some sort of moral high ground. (We all enjoy being on what we perceive as the moral high ground so that we can spend a few moments there lording it over everyone else. It sounds bad, but it's true! It's human nature.)

People who don't like organic cotton usually don't like it for one of two reasons:
(1) it's more expensive and they can't see spending so much money for something they see as morally equivalent to non-organic cotton.
(2) they loathe the people who use organic stuff as a moral high ground, because nobody likes other people telling them they're on the moral low ground.

Me, I see organic cotton as something like Kobe beef. Kobe beef is a horribly expensive beef from Japan. The cows are specially fed and massaged, and the beef is supposed to be the best-tasting, most tender beef in the world. It is the process by which the beef is painstakingly obtained, and the high value of the land it takes to raise a cow on the crowded island of Japan, that makes the beef so expensive. What makes Kobe beef "cool" enough for people to spend hundreds of dollars on it is the knowledge of its provenance, and that it's supposed to be more tender and flavorful than ordinary beef. I don't know of anyone who thinks Kobe beef is somehow more "moral" than, say, Texas beef. So people who shell out the big bucks for Kobe beef are paying for the experience of eating beef that's been pampered.

What inspired this long and rambling post was a lady who placed a special order for ten organic cotton oven mitts. Something the lady said irritated me. She thanked me for doing such a service to the environment by promoting organic cotton. Now, I don't really care much why she wanted to buy the mitts, because her money's as green as anyone else's. Economics doesn't concern itself much with people's motivations; that's what Marketing is for. I sell organic cotton because (a) people will buy it, (b) it's a "cool" fiber in the sense that Kobe beef is "cool", and (c) it has other redeeming properties (such as superior softness and hypoallergenicity) besides the opportunity to lord it over others. I don't sell it as a service to the environment; my customers buy it as a service to the environment.

If people would buy scarves made from silk yarn from Mars, I would sell scarves made from silk yarn from Mars (assuming I could get the yarn wholesale). For heaven's sake, people pay $25 for red strings that have been to Israel, just because of the process they've been through. I don't take the moral high ground and sell the stuff because I want to make a difference in the world, I sell it because I'm a capitalist pig!

That being said, though, I do have a soft spot in my heart for "the environment". My Girl Scout training kicks in and I hear my troop leader saying, "Leave the campsite a better place than when you found it." But I figure that economics exerts a much stronger hand on people's preferences than morality does. So for that reason, and also in favor of an easier price structure, I charge just as much for my non-organic stuff as for my organic stuff, even though the non-organic cotton yarn costs half of what the organic costs. That may change, though, because the price of the organic yarn recently went up by 20%. I'm not so committed to "saving the environment" that I would fail to pass on to my customers the cost of the thing they're buying.