Information About Organic Clothing

Usually, when we think “organic”, we think of fruits and veggies that have been grown without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Occasionally, we might also apply “organic” to the meat, eggs, and dairy products we consume – eating beef raised on organic grasses, for example, or chickens fed only organic grains.

More rarely, we hear the word “organic” applied to the clothing that we wear. What is organic clothing, and why should it matter whether or not our clothes are organic?

Organic clothing is clothing made from cotton, silk, wool, or other natural fibers that have been produced organically. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to clothing that has been made from recycled fibers, such as hemp or bamboo. It should be noted that “organic clothing” is not synonymous with “fair trade” or “cruelty free” clothing, meaning it’s still possible to buy an organically grown cotton dress produced in a sweatshop.

Natural Organic Clothing

As awareness grows about the potential environmental harm our western appetite for clothing might wreak, natural organic clothing is gaining in popularity. Furthermore, some organic clothing is more likely to be hypoallergenic due to the lack of synthetic chemicals during the production process. Women who sometimes get rashes or other skin irritations from their clothing might be wise to seek out organic clothing.

However, because the concept of organic clothing is still relatively new, it’s not always easy to verify what’s been grown organically and what hasn’t been, or even what an “organic” label means.

Given these challenges in a nascent industry, how does one find reliable organic clothing that is also fair trade and cruelty free? Here’s a look at some of the reliable certifications you might see, and what they mean.

IFOAM’s Organic Textile Standards

IFOAM stands for “International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements”. It bills itself as an umbrella organization for organic growers and merchants all around the world. In 1998, IFOAM established guidelines for organic textiles, called the Organic Textile Standards. The idea was to create standards for organic clothing that could be recognized internationally.

IFOAM was the first but not the last organization to create organic textile standards. One example of an “organic” clothing label you might see that follows the IFOAM standards is The Soil Association, a UK organization that started labeling textiles in 2003.

Organic Trade Association

In the United States, the major player in the organic market is the Organic Trade Association (OTA). They defined four different levels of the “organic” label. The first label is “100% organic”, which means that each piece of the clothing, right down to the thread, was produced organically. The lowest tier is “Less than 70% organic”, a confusing label that doesn’t really tell the consumer all that much about the clothing.

Growing Fibers vs. Manufacturing Fabrics

However, just because the cotton fibers making up the thread might have been grown organically, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the thread doesn’t have anything harmful in it. What about potentially harmful dyes or other finishing chemicals used in the production of the threads or fabrics? Some organizations certify an eco-friendly manufacturing process, but not organic fibers. As seen above, other organizations certify organic fibers, but not the manufacturing process.

Enter GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standards. Like IFOAM before it, GOTS attempts to reconcile different labeling practices to make it easy to find clothing that has been both organically grown and safely manufactured. GOTS is a set of standards that represents a meeting of the minds between OTA, The Soil Association, the German association IVN, and the Japanese association JOCA. GOTS follows clothing from the field to the factory, ensuring that the fiber itself is organic, and that the production process is also eco-friendly.

The GOTS Label

Companies certified by GOTS must meet the following requirements:

  • Fibers making up the clothing must be at least 70 to 95% organic.
  • Fibers must come from organic fields or “organic in conversion” fields. This means that some of the fibers may come from farms which are in the process of converting to organic growing.
  • Dyes used must be natural dyes, or synthetic dyes that meet GOTS requirements. Requirements include dyes that exclude or limit heavy metals, pesticides, formaldehyde, and azo dyes.

The USDA is considering adopting the GOTS. If they do, there might be a “USDA certified” label for clothing in the future, clearing up the confusion about what exactly counts as organic clothing. Until that time, do your homework before you spend your hard-earned money. You might not be getting what you expect if you choose items certified by questionable organizations, or organizations with questionable standards.

Photo by Martin LaBar