By Laura Edwards-Orr
Organic is good for you, right? There is just something intuitive about eating food that is grown organically. It makes sense that a healthful lifestyle starts with food raised without the use of synthetic fertilizer, toxic pesticides, and other potentially harmful shortcuts so often employed to grow our food. But doing what's good for you, your family, and the earth doesn't need to stop at your grocery list.
Fiber crops, primarily cotton, are often raised in the same chemically intensive way as the rest of our commodity crops. In fact, cotton is considered the world's "dirtiest" crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Other fibers such as wool, bamboo, and silk may not be as potentially damaging to grow as cotton, but industrial methods of processing and dying modern fabrics close that gap in a hurry.
So when you see clothing or other fabric items labeled "organic," what does it actually mean? And does it really make a difference? To answer these questions, you have to start on the farm. All raw ingredients must be grown or raised in accordance with the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards. As with any food crop, these regulations must be followed to the letter, which is certified by a third party to ensure compliance. Once the fiber leaves the farm, however, things get a little more complicated.
Unlike food production, in which it is illegal to label a product as organic if it is grown outside of the national standards, fiber production standards are voluntary. However, efforts are afoot to unify this segment of the organic industry. The Organic Trade Association (OTA), the leading U.S. trade association for the organic industry, adopted the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) in 2010. These standards were updated and revised as part of a multi-stakeholder process in March 2011. Any item bearing a GOTS-certified organic label must be third-party certified according to the following regulations:
- Textiles labeled "organic" must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers.
- Textiles labeled "made with organic" must contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers.
- All chemicals used in the manufacturing processes — knitting, weaving, cleaning, scouring, dyeing, and finishing — must not be carcinogenic, mutagenic (able to change genetic material, usually DNA), teratogenic (able to cause abnormalities of physiological development), toxic to mammals, or be a hormone disrupter.
- All degreasers, detergents, surfactants, and soaps for scouring wool and animal fibers must be biodegradable.
- Synthetic waxes can be used on yarn, but they must be water-soluble and free of alkyl phenol ethoxylates — suspected hormone disruptors that have been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen.
- All knitting and weaving oils must be water-soluble.
- Any non-organic items in the garment such as buttons, zippers, elastic yarns, or fabrics must be on the list of approved items for which there are no organic counterparts available.
- The use of chlorine bleach, plastisols (used as ink for screen-printing onto textiles and made from liquid polyvinyl chloride [PVC], an environmentally damaging plastic), some AZO dyes (synthetic dyes with a potential for toxic side effects), formaldehyde, and synthetic chemicals for functional finishes is prohibited.
- No genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including GM cotton, are allowed in any phase of the process from growing organic fibers to final finishing and packaging.
While this list might read a bit like a science project, the basic gist is clear: certified organic fibers must be produced in a way that is good for the earth and the workers — without toxic chemicals and synthetic materials. If you find a product that is labeled organic but not through a third-party certifier, you may want to investigate the company a little further.
Pioneering companies have banked on the benefits of organic agriculture by making organic clothing their niche. Nau makes sustainable urban and outdoor apparel. Gaiam and Maggie's Organics specialize in cotton casual and fitness wear. Retailers, too, such as Patagonia and REI, have shown their commitment to sustainable fibers by carrying a variety of clothes and outerwear made with organic and sustainably produced fabrics. Housewears are becoming similarly green, with companies such as Target stocking organic towels and sheets.
Organic fiber production is a complicated industry with many twists and turns — due in some part to the fact that most clothing companies use global supply chains. But after reviewing the facts, you can see that certified organic fibers feel good in more ways than one: they are naturally breathable and hypoallergenic because they don’t contain synthetics, AND they were grown, woven, dyed, and packaged with the health of the planet and your family in mind.
If organic foods are an important part of how you show your commitment to a healthy lifestyle and sustainable planet, you might start to incorporate organic clothing into your closet as well. Feel daunted? Worried about the price? Many companies, aware of the stigma of organic = pricey, have put a lot of attention into making their clothing lines as affordable as possible. As always, the best way to get started is to start small. Treat yourself to a pair of socks or a tee shirt. Once you start looking, you'll find organic bargains everywhere.
Laura Edwards-Orr started her career as a local foods advocate at the nonprofit and benefit concert Farm Aid. She is currently the marketing and communications manager for Canton, Massachusetts-based nonprofit Red Tomato. Ms. Edwards-Orr also works as a freelance writer, researcher, and data nerd for organizations and businesses working to create family-farm-based food systems and value chains. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband, twin babies, horse, dog, and two cats.