Organic Fiber and Textile Expert
Here, Adrian Desbarats, president of Fashion and Earth, explains what it means for clothing to carry the organic label, what to look for when buying organic clothing, and why it's worth it for your health -and the health of the environment-to incorporate organic clothing into your wardrobe.
Q: What does it mean if clothing is labeled “organic?
A: In the United States, the USDA regulates the term “organic” as it applies to agricultural products and enforces this regulation through the National Organic Program (NOP). Simply put, all natural fibers such as cotton, wool, flax, etc used in clothing products must be certified through the National Organic Program before the producer can label the textile as “organic”.
The NOP standard requires that for any natural fiber to be certified as organic it must not be genetically modified and must have been produced without using toxic pesticides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers. Farmers must also use practices that maintain or improve soil and water quality. So in other words, any natural fibers labeled as organic under NOP will have had a smaller impact on the environment as compared to conventionally produced fibers such as cotton.
There are three primary organic certifications that you will find on clothing products in the US, specifically the Organic Exchange 100 Standard (OE100), Organic Exchange Blended Standard (OEB) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
The OE100 and OEB standards deal only with the agriculture portion of the production chain not with the manufacturing or social aspects of production chain. If you are concerned with all aspects of the process right from culture of the natural fiber through to the final product, then GOTS is by far the most powerful standard. GOTS requires that the natural fiber be produced following NOP guidelines, which are the same as the OE standards. In addition, the GOTS standard requires that the clothing manufacture process follows very strict environmental guidelines, and that all aspects of the culture and manufacture chain follow globally standardized fair trade practices.
So, in summary, if an article of clothing is labeled as being produced from organic cotton, wool, flax, etc., it should have one of the three certifications listed above. (Please note that it is legal to identify organic fiber as organic on the care & content label; FTC requires that this fiber be NOP-certified. However, certification of a finished product is voluntary). If it does not, you should reach out to the manufacturer for clarification. If there is no certification for the organic content claim, you should report the incident to the National Organic Program and the Federal Trade Commission.
Q: How can people be sure that the organic fiber in the clothing they buy is, indeed, organic?
A: Becoming familiar with certifications is probably the easiest way to know for sure that you’re getting the real thing. The United States, the European Union and Japan have very comprehensive legislation regarding organic certification. In the US, the standard is the USDA National Organic standard, in the European Union it is regulation EEC N2092/91 and in Japan it is the Japanese Organic Standard.
These standards apply only to natural fibre textiles such as clothing produced from wool, cotton, flax, etc. Unfortunately, any viscose textiles produced from natural fibres such as bamboo and soy cannot be certified as organic. Viscose based textiles, also known as rayon, have been produced by chemically breaking down the natural fibers into their basic cellulosic structure and then rebuilding them into fibers. Because the process used to produce them makes these textiles technically synthetic, they cannot be certified as organic under GOTS.
If you have questions about a company or its products, contact their customer service department.
Q: How does buying organic clothing support personal health?
A: Despite the fact that cotton production only accounts for 2.5% of total arable land use, it accounts for 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides. It is, in fact, the second most insecticide -laden crop in the world. Seven of the top fifteen pesticides used on conventional cotton in the U.S. (Acephate, 1,3-Dichloropropene, Diuron, Fluometuron, Pendimethalin, Tribufos and trifluralin) are known or suspected of causing cancer in people.
Many pesticides are also known or suspected endocrine disruptors. (Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that impede fecundity, fertility and fetal development). For example, the very common crop pesticide Atrazine is a known endocrine disruptor. Other known pesticide based endocrine disruptors include Chlordane, Chlordecone, DDT, Dicofol, Dieldrin, Endosulfan, Hexachlorobenzene HCB, Lindane (Gamma-HCH), Methoxychlor, Pyrethroids, Toxaphene, Triazines, Tributyl tin, Vinclozolin. In all, there are well over 80 pesticides commonly used in agriculture that are also known endocrine disruptors.
By saying yes to organic clothing, you are taking a huge step toward protecting your health by avoiding these types of chemicals
Q: Organic clothing can be priced higher than its non-organic counterparts. Is there a reason for this?
A: Organic cotton production comprises less than 1% of global cotton production. Additionally, organic cotton production is relatively new. As such, farmers have to learn agriculture methods and develop new techniques, which allow effective culture of cotton without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Because of the low production volumes and farmers’ need to train themselves and their workers in organic production methods, the cost of organic production is higher compared to conventional cotton. In addition, there are extra costs associated with organic certification, fair trade certification and yearly auditing.
Organic cotton production also represents the true cost of production. By contast, when people buy non-organic cotton, there are hidden costs for which we all pay indirectly. These are called externalized costs, and they include damage to water sources, damage to soil resources, damage to wildlife and ecosystem biodiversity, and damage to human health from such things as exposure to pesticides.
The good news is that organic cotton production is growing rapidly due to high consumer demand. As production increases and as natural agriculture techniques improve, costs will go down, making it easier to buy organic. For now, though, you should wear whatever organic clothing you have with pride, knowing that your decision to support organic clothing is making a difference.
About Adrian Desbarats
Adrian Desbarats founded women’s eco-fashion site Fashion and Earth as much to fulfill a personal mission as from a desire to be in business. His background as a biologist has made him acutely aware of the intricate balance of Nature and the importance of supporting that balance while meeting human needs.
Desbarats is optimistic that despite the world CAN be saved – but only through the cumulative actions of many individuals. Recognizing that women are a driving force in the shift to a more Earth-friendly lifestyle, he started FashionandEarth.com to make it easier for women to make healthier, more Earth-friendly fashion choices without sacrificing style or a satisfying shopping experience.
To join Fashion & Earth’s virtual community of women who are passionate about saving the Earth and protecting their health one small lifestyle step at a time, and to receive recipes, news and information about sustainable living, visit www.FashionandEarth.com.