What’s the deal with Organic Clothes?

We’ve all heard about organic food, but what about organic clothes? I don’t eat cotton, so why should I care if the stuff that goes into my clothing is organic? What does organic clothing even mean?

Well we can begin by looking at conventional (non-organic) and genetically modified cotton production, compared to organic cotton. Just like food production, there’s what’s called “conventional” farming where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not used, however crops are not grown organically. Pesticide and herbicide overuse are some of the larger issues with this type of farming. Then there’s genetically modified (GM) farming where GMOs are used, and finally there’s organic farming.

Organic farmers and other food producers are certified to the U.S. federal standard for “organic”, called the National Organic Program (NOP). It’s pretty much a set of regulations on what is and what is not allowed in organic food production in the US, that’s been agreed upon after numerous years of debate. If a farmer wants to become certified organic (ex. put the word “organic” on product packaging), he/she needs to go through one of the 80 accredited certifying agencies in the United States. I know a bit about this process, as I work for one. 🙂

Since cotton is a crop it is certified to the NOP food standard, however once it leaves the farm and begins to be processed in clothing, towels, bedding, etc. it now falls under the jurisdiction of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). We’ll get back to GOTS in a moment. For now let’s look at non-organic cotton to understand the impact this crop has on the environment each year.

Non-organic cotton’s impact on the environment

  • “In the U.S., cotton ranks in third place in terms of pesticide use after only corn and soybeans. More than 38 million pounds of pesticides were used on cotton in 2014.
  • The same year, cotton ranked fourth in terms of fertilizer use on crops – almost 973 million pounds – behind only corn, soybeans, and wheat.
  • Global cotton production releases 220 million metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide a year, with one MT of non-organic cotton fiber producing 1.8 MT of carbon dioxide.
  • It takes more than 2,700 liters of water to make one conventional cotton t-shirt, and almost 11,000 to make a pair of jeans.
  • In India, home to more cotton farmers than any other country, pesticides applied to cotton production account for over half of the total amount applied annually despite cotton acreage representing just 5% of all agricultural land there.” (From the Organic Trade Association’s page “Cotton and the Environment”)

Of the top ten pesticides used on U.S. cotton in 2015:

  • “Three – glyphosate, diuron, and tribufos – are considered known or probable human carcinogens
  • Three – acephate, s-metolachlor, and trifluralin–are considered possible human carcinogens
  • Three – acephate, paraquat, sodium chlorate – are considered level II moderately acutely toxic pesticides.
  • Six – acetochlor (Group 1), diuron (Group 2), and acephate, glyphosate, paraquat, and trifluralin (Group 3)—are considered known or possible endocrine disruptors.” (From the Organic Trade Association’s page “Cotton and the Environment”)

Why organic cotton is better

“According to the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC), which grows the majority of the organic cotton in the U.S., its growers do not use any inputs for weed control, preferring to use mechanical tillage and hand weeding. They very rarely use anything for insect control, preferring to create resilient crops by building healthy soils and using inputs such as neem oil only as a last resort.

Organic farming methods also use natural fertilizers, such as compost and animal manure, which recycle the nitrogen already in the soil rather than adding more. This reduces both pollution and N2O emissions. Such methods also sequester and reduce carbon emissions. Instead of synthetic fertilizer, most TOCMC farmers use compost, and a few use manure or natural biological products.” (From the Organic Trade Association’s page “Cotton and the Environment”)

Off the farm and onto you…

Alright so we’ve established that the production of cotton can be full of harmful pesticides and fertilizers if not grown organically. Since growing the cotton organically in  a field does not result in a t-shirt, there’s more of the story to understand. As mentioned above, once cotton is harvested and leaves the farm, it is no longer considered a crop. Cotton begins being processed into textiles. What does this processing entail you ask?

According to the Organic Trade Association, “During the conversion of conventionally grown cotton into apparel and textiles, many hazardous materials are used during processing and screen-printing, including dyes, silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, formaldehyde, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC in screen printing) —to just name a few. Many processing stages result in large amounts of untreated toxic wastewater being carried into drinking water sources.”

But don’t worry if you’re purchasing certified organic textiles, the process is much safer. The Global Organic Textile Standard, just like the National Organic Program for food, prohibits numerous processes and inputs listed above. The standard covers fibers such as cotton, wool, hemp, and flax (linen), prohibiting the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering during the processing stages (spinning, knitting, weaving, dyeing, and manufacturing) of textile.

Thankfully the number of facilities certified to GOTS is ever increasing, to keep up with the growing demand for more sustainable and ethically produced textiles. And unlike the organic food standard, GOTS also includes labor requirements such as a prohibition on child labor and living wage minimums. Imagine that!


Finding GOTS certified products: 

Great, so you’re on board with purchasing organically produced clothing, bedding, and other textiles. To find such things you can simply check a product’s label for the above logo, or search the GOTS database for products and/or specific companies that produce GOTS certified products. Using the database can be a little complicated, as many of the search results are for companies that produce textiles, but not the final t-shirt available for purchase.

Until better search options through GOTS are available, I will just do a “google search” for the product I want, to find companies that produce it. For example if I’m looking for GOTS certified bedding, I’d enter that into Google and see what comes up. It generally works out pretty well. I’ve found organic clothes, towels, bedding, and even a mattress made from organic cotton. If you’re near a Whole Foods or other large health food store, they might even carry some GOTS certified products!

Thank you for trying to purchase more sustainably and ethically, and happy shopping!


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