By Melissa J. Anderson

Once the solely under the purview of granola munching hippies, organic cotton is going mainstream. Appearing more and more frequently in retain chains, now even big-box retailers like Wal-Mart carry organic cotton clothing and household items.

Recently one of the world’s largest merchandisers also started carrying organic t-shirts: Disney. But that’s not all – the company only carries organic cotton t-shirts. At the recent UN Global Conference for Social Change, Christie Fleischer, Director of Merchandise, Softlines, at The Disney Store, said “We didn’t give the guest that choice. Organic, sustainable cotton is our standard of quality.”

She continued, “We entered into this business because we believed it was the right thing to do. But we have seen an increase of double digits in sales – an increase that surpassed our stretch expectations.” But sustainability is more than a matter of customer satisfaction.

Presenting at the Conference with Anvil Knitwear‘s CEO Anthony Corsano and Jimmy Wedel, a cotton grower and President of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, the three represent a vertical supply chain. Disney sells the organic products that Anvil makes, and Anvil purchases the organic cotton that Wedel grows. Together, they explained how sustainable cotton benefit the supply chain’s human capital as well – right down to the farm workers.

A Green Supply Chain is Good for People Too

What’s good for the earth is usually good for people too – because, well, we live here. But the human benefits of green supply chain are much more tangible and direct. In fact, as Wedel pointed out, transitioning to organic farming has allowed him to make more money and employ more staff, building his own business as well as the local economy.

Wedel explained, “Sustainability is not just one of the hottest buzz words. Rural communities are dying, and conventional farming is not sustainable.”

He explained that because organic farming is more labor intensive than conventional farming, it’s more expensive. But since demand for organic products from clothing manufacturers like Anvil is rising, he is able to make more money from his product, and employ more a larger staff. “Higher prices means higher wages,” he explained. “It’s an economic multiplier.”

Taking Partnership Action with a Green Supply Chain

Corsano agreed. He explained that organic farming provides social, environmental and product safety and integration benefits. Anvil, the largest buyer of organically grown cotton in the US, and the 6th largest buyer worldwide, was honored as a Top Leader of Change at the conference for its commitment to actionable sustainability.

Anvil Knitwear recently announced that it would double the amount of acreage committed to organic cotton farming in 2011. Corsano said, “Business is booming. We’re out of capacity. We have to look at sustainability not as an expense, but as an amazing way to build capital.”

Corsano pointed out that until sustainability is seen as profitable, corporations won’t take part. The success of Anvil partnership with Wedel and Disney shows how social change can be accomplished by looking further down either end of the supply change. Companies can make a larger social and environmental impact, generate larger profits, and do better for their employees if they work together. Louise Guido, President and Founder of the Foundation for Social Change, which hosted the conference said, “That collaborative partnership makes it all worthwhile.”