If we look back in recent history, the word "organic" was probably only used to describe compounds in natural sciences like biology and chemistry. Nowadays we hear it a lot more in the context of consumer goods. Organic clothing, similar to food, is something that has only started gaining popularity in the past decade or two. And yet for many, organic is just another name for an overpriced version of a product. But to really understand where the disparity comes from, we have to explore the fundamental goals of the movement.
It all starts with the building blocks of fashion, the raw materials. In the textile industry fibers fall into one of three main categories. We can find clothes from natural fibers which can be plant or animal-based, synthetics like polyester, and the so-called man-made cellulose. Out of those only natural fibers can be truly organic, because they can be a product of organic agriculture.
After the rapid industrialization of agriculture in the 20th century, the use of chemically and genetically enhanced crops has become the norm. They have been proven to be more resilient, easier to grow, and result in higher yields. On the flip side, their negative effects on the environment, animals, and people are highly controversial to this day. In an attempt to address the problem, in 1990, the US National Organic Program (NOP) began establishing the standard for organic farming.
Organic clothing is created from natural materials derived from farming that adheres to the national organic standards. Though pricier, the garments are considered eco-friendly because the fibers are produced through biologically based methods that prohibit the use of harmful synthetic chemicals. Common plant and animal fibers include organic cotton, hemp, linen, silk, and wool. Notable certifications/labels are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and OCS (Organic Content Standard).
Cotton vs Organic Cotton
Cotton is a common natural fiber that accounts for nearly 34% of all textiles and more than 10% of the pesticides. Organically grown cotton however is less than 1% of it, and yet, it is by far the most popular organic fiber among sustainable fashion brands. The biggest exporter is India (51%), followed by China (17%), while the USA homes only 2% of the global production.
The benefit of organic over conventional cotton is in the prohibited use of GMO (Genetically Modified) seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides. Additionally, it reduces water consumption by 91% and encourages holistic agricultural techniques like crop rotation, companion planting, and usage of insect predators.
Organic cotton is often GOTS certified. It is probably the most recognized textile certification as it includes strict environmental and social criteria that cover all stages of manufacturing. The GOTS label also guarantees that the fabric contains at least 70% organic content.
On a side note, when farmers transition from conventional to organic, they have to comply with the organic standards for a minimum of 3 years before they are granted certification. This is the time it takes for the land to get clean from past use of synthetic chemicals. Meanwhile, the harvest is being sold under the "cotton in conversion" label which presents a great opportunity to support businesses that are trying to change for the better.
What Is Organic Hemp (and Linen)?
Both hemp and linen fall in the category of bast fibers - e.g. fibers from the skin (or bast) surrounding the stem of the plant. As such they share a lot of aesthetic and functional properties and are generally considered more eco-friendly than cotton. For instance, hemp is pest-resistant, requires much less water to grow, and is not genetically modified.
Unfortunately, that doesn't stop farmers from using toxic fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, chemical retting is often used to separate the fibers from the stem which creates a problem with wastewater disposal.
Similar to cotton, organic linen and hemp are more sustainable than their conventional variants due to the strict requirements of the organic standard. The benefits are enhancement of soil fertility, and biological diversity, while prohibiting synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
One drawback is that it is much harder to find GOTS-certified hemp/linen fabrics because large-scale production is uncommon and small farmers can't afford certification.
Is Organic Wool Ethical?
Clothing from organic wool is a rare find these days because of the many risks and economical challenges that come with organic livestock farming. And that's a pity because it is such a great holistic approach that not only cares for animals but also helps maintain the local biodiversity, the quality of pastures, soil, and waterways.
By choosing organic you support the effort of farmers who invest in the health and welfare of their sheep, goats, and alpaca. The certification ensures that
- Animals live in better conditions, inhabit larger stalls, and are allowed to move freely in green pastures.
- They are fed with organic non-GMO feeds that are usually locally grown and graze on land that is free of harmful chemicals.
- Veterinary drugs can be only administered in the presence of illness. The use of preventive antibiotics and toxic pesticides (sheep dipping) is prohibited in fighting internal parasites, insects, and fungus.
- Animals are handled in a stress-free and cruelty-free manner during castration, shearing, transportation, etc.
Find more on the subject in the Australian National Organic Standard.
A lot more common alternative is wool certified by the RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) or ZQ Merino. Their requirements largely overlap with the organic standards, but the efficacy of their auditing is questionable because of the low-frequency checks and scheduled appointments. PETA even claims that there's no such thing as "responsible wool" calling out Eileen Fisher and Patagonia on the issue.
Does Organic Mean Safe to Wear?
There's no reason to believe that organic fabrics are safer. We have to acknowledge that they haven't been treated with the same toxic pesticides as their conventional equivalents. But we don't have any evidence that harmful residuals survive the manufacturing process either.
What is more, organic standards don't regulate whatever happens in the factory. Processes like retting, cleaning, bleaching, spinning, and especially dyeing are much closer to the consumer stage and rely on a significant chemical input.
So should you buy organic for safety reasons?
Yes, but only if the clothes are GOTS, OEKO-TEX® 100, or Bluesign® Certified. Each of those certifications tests against a long list of harmful substances such as chlorine bleach, phthalates, prohibited azo dyes, formaldehyde, nickel, etc. That makes them more suitable for people with sensitive skin or allergies, and a preferred choice for underwear, sleepwear, and bedding. If in doubt about your specific case, it is always best to check the full list of tested chemicals and contact the manufacturer. It is important to ensure that the entire article is labeled. Brands sometimes make claims in the context of individual substances or processes in manufacturing, like dyeing for instance.
Why Organic Is Better
Clearly, the benefit of organic fashion extends beyond the immediate value for the consumer. Whenever you invest in something like that it is important to understand exactly where your money makes a difference. On a surface level, it is the support to ethical brands and the quality product that you are getting, but in reality, it is all about preserving the environment and providing better living for animals and farmers. Here's a summary of all the good stuff that comes with it.
Lower carbon emissions and reduced energy consumption from limiting synthetic chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture.
Preserving the biodiversity that is usually destroyed with GMO crops, monocropping, and the use of toxic pesticides.
Soil health, fertility, and moisture retention achieved with crop rotation and the usage of organic fertilizers like animal manure and compost. Agricultural land degradation is quickly becoming a serious issue threatening the life on the planet.
Less water consumption. Quality soil retains water and reduces the need for extensive irrigation. Organic cotton, unlike the conventional, is predominantly rainfed and grown in regions with sufficient water supply.
Less water pollution. Soil erosion is a known issue that has been liked to nutrient runoff into nearby waterways. This is less of a problem with organic crops due to better soils and the lack of toxic chemicals.
Animal welfare promoted by organic standards that emphasize cruelty-free treatment, better living conditions, and disease management.
Farmer`s health and livelihood. Farmers and their families are not exposed to potentially cancerogenic pesticides, they run sustainable businesses and receive premium prices for their produce.
The adoption of organic fabrics creates a more ethical approach to fashion that is oftentimes accompanied by better quality and safety profile of products. The higher prices are justified by the extra cost and care associated with running a sustainable business that respects people, animals, and the environment. This is a reminder that the capitalistic system has gone too far competing for customer approval by continually reducing prices at the expense of the planet. It is time to tap into the future and change the corrupted model by adopting a more conscious consumption.