As shoppers become more conscious about what they are buying, fibres and fabrics that are natural, sustainable, eco friendly or organic are becoming more popular.
But what exactly are you getting when you buy an organic fibre or fabric specifically?
There’s different regulations, certifications, labelling – what do they each mean, and how do they impact the final product you buy?
We’ve provided a bit more insight for you below.
Summary – What Are You Really Getting When You Buy Organic Fibres & Fabrics?
Organic regulations by different countries are good, but they usually aren’t a good indicator of what a truly organic product is. They really just provide general guidelines.
You can’t just rely on the label by the company offering the product either – as it may be misleading, or just not give you enough information.
Instead – it’s probably best to look to see if a product carries certain organic certification from recognised and established certifying bodies.
The best one right now for ensuring you are getting a true organic product, due to the thoroughness and transparency of their standards, is probably GOTS certification.
GOTS is mainly used to certify organic cotton for now.
A few things you need to be aware of with some common fibres and certifications (and assessing how organic they are) are:
- Bamboo – is not eligible for GOTS certification yet. This is because bamboo has mostly been chemically processed to date. Companies might try to provide individual guarantees their products are eco friendly, either as a standalone comment, or with testing details on their products
- Lyocell – is not eligible for GOTS certification yet. But, does use a closed loop process in production, and does have other awards and certifications for being eco friendly and sustainable e.g. TENCEL with it’s EU Flower certification.
- Oeko-Tex 100 Certification – does not mean certified 100% organic. It means that at any tested stage, any chemical residue is within allowable maximum limits, depending on the end use (i.e. baby clothing is more strict than adult). Oeko-Tex 100 certifies lyocell fabrics, but this relates only to the residue left on the fabric for the end consumer and does not look at any chemicals used in growing, processing, dyeing or finishing. – elkieark.com
- Put another way – The goal of Oeko-Tex fabric safety standard is to ensure that fabrics pose no risk to human health. The Oeko-Tex Standard … prohibits the same long list of chemicals that GOTS prohibits; but Oeko-Tex addresses nothing else about the production steps. For example, wastewater treatment is not required, nor are workers rights addressed. It is NOT an organic certification and products bearing this mark are not necessarily made from organically grown fibers – or from natural fibers at all. Plastic yarn (polyester, nylon, acrylic) is permitted. Oeko-Tex is only concerned with the safety of the use of the final product. – oecotextiles.wordpress.com
- OICA, USDA/NOP Certification – Some fabrics use these certifications, but this only relates to crops, not the rest of the process.
Organic Fibres & Fabrics – Regulations By Country
From a regulations perspective, an organic fibre or fabric can be many things.
Different countries are going to have different regulations for how producers are allowed to grow or produce materials and products, and how sellers are allowed to label their products.
In the US for example, the USDA regulates organic ‘food, feed, and fiber’ – essentially agricultural products.
You can find more information on that here:
- https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic (main page)
- https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic (rules, regulations, definitions etc.)
Organic Fibres & Fabrics – Certifications, Standards & Associations
Certifications and standards can be provided for organic fibres and fabrics by third party organisations and certifying bodies:
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) International Working Group – responsible for the development, implementation, verification, protection and promotion of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This standard stipulates requirements throughout the supply chain for both ecology and labour conditions in textile and apparel manufacturing using organically produced raw materials. Organic production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic, persistent pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, organic production relies on adequate animal husbandry and excludes genetic modification. comprised of four reputed member organisations, namely OTA (USA), IVN (Germany), Soil Association (UK) and JOCA (Japan).
Read more about the GOTS standards here – https://www.global-standard.org/the-standard.html
A company should state on their website, in the product description of on the product label (with a GOTS symbol) whether they have GOTS or not
Some other organisations promote organic practices and trade:
- Organic Trade Association (OTA) – a membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States
Other organisations that aren’t specifically organic based but relate to standards are:
- The Textile Exchange – a global non-profit that works closely with members to drive industry transformation in preferred fibers, integrity and standards and responsible supply networks. [They] identify and share best practices regarding farming, materials, processing, traceability and product end-of-life in order to reduce the textile industry’s impact on the world’s water, soil and air, and the human population.
- OECO-TEX Standard 100 – The STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® is a worldwide consistent, independent testing and certification system for raw, semi-finished, and finished textile products at all processing levels, as well as accessory materials used. The STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® takes account of:
- Important legal regulations, such as banned Azo colourants, formaldehyde, pentachlorophenol, cadmium, nickel, etc.
- Numerous harmful chemicals, even if they are not yet legally regulated.
- Requirements of Annexes XVII and XIV of the European Chemicals Regulation REACh as well as of the ECHA SVHC Candidate List insofar as they are assessed by expert groups of the OEKO-TEX® Association to be relevant for fabrics, textiles, garments or accessories. Discussions and developments that are considered to be relevant are taken into account as quickly and effectively as possible through updates to the STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® requirements.
- Requirements from the US Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) regarding lead.
- Numerous also environmentally relevant substance classes
Organic Fibres & Fabrics – Labelling By Companies
Labelling of fabrics and garments by companies might say ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or something similar.
Companies have to legally meet labelling and product packaging regulations in the country they offer that fabric in.
But, labels can be misleading, and not offer much information on what you are actually getting compared to a certification standard that you can check from a third party.
An example of how mislabelling might happen, or how some people might think they are getting a natural product that is actually not, is:
- In 2010, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued letters informing over 100 companies that they were mislabeling products made of rayon [processed with synthetic chemicals] as being made from bamboo, deceiving environmentally conscious consumers.
- In 2015, the FTC filed complaints against Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Backcountry.com, and their subsidiaries, for continuing to deceptively sell rayon mislabeled as bamboo. The four companies were required to pay civil penalties totaling US$1.3 million for violating the “Textile Act and the Textile Rules” and Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act.
- Similar action took place in Canada
Organic Fibres & Fabrics – An Example To Be Aware Of With Organic Bamboo
The following is heavily paraphrased, broken into specific points, or points have been added by us from an article at Elkie Ark.com (read the full article at https://www.elkieark.com/blogs/eco-living-sustainable-living/organic-bamboo-bed-linen).
Elkie Ark discuss what you are actually getting with organic or natural bamboo fibre/fabric, and what you might want to be aware of.
Some of the key points are:
- Bamboo growing is generally eco friendly
- But bamboo production also needs to be considered
- Bamboo can be mechanically processed (without chemicals – which keeps the fibres more natural and organic), or chemically processed and turned into a viscose/rayon
- When bamboo undergoes chemical processing, it’s questionable how much of it’s natural properties such as being anti bacterial that is actually loses
- Bamboo used in it’s natural form (solid bamboo wood) is generally fine – it’s softer products like sheets that require it’s fibres that are a concern (because they need chemicals to extract the fibres)
- Think about it – bamboo has to be turned from a wood stem into a fibre – how does that happen? Compare that to a naturally soft fibre like for example cotton lint or flax linen
- Organic linen and flax, were assessed to be more sustainable, use less water, no toxic chemicals in production, could be dyed and produced organically at every stage and unlike conventional cotton, could be farmed without toxic pesticides and sustainably too. They were less likely to pill, or rip, have a phenomenal feel and are made from a fabric designed to last.
- It’s possible bamboo demand has grown so much that arable land or even pesticides could be being used now [despite bamboo’s reputation for using little pesticides and growing densely and quickly with higher yields on lesser land]
- There is one factory in China that produces most of the world’s bamboo fabric and also holds the underlying bamboo forests – this limits the ability to know what is going on at the production process and going on on the bamboo farms
- Some companies that provide bamboo products don’t know how the bamboo is made/processed
- As GOTS explains – For almost all bamboo fibre used in industrial textile production not the natural bamboo is used but it is melted and regenerated in a viscose / rayon process and can therefore not be considered as natural or even organic fibre, even if the bamboo plant was originally certified organic on the field
- With chemically produced bamboo – the viscose production method …uses carbon disulphide. It is highly toxic and really bad for workers’ health… [the] UV-blocking property and anti-bacterial property of the commercial bamboo fibre – that is basically viscose – is missing.
- Also in bamboo production – Dyes, anti-pilling treatments (which bamboo is more prone too), finishing treatments and the underlying treatment process could all be using toxic chemicals and not considering the waste
- Be aware of the labelling requirements of bamboo in your country – if it is chemically processed, it should be labelled as ‘bamboo rayon’ or ‘bamboo viscose’. Some countries might still allow a bamboo product to be called ‘organic bamboo’ even if it’s chemically processed.
- Chemicals like sulphuric acid [have been found in the bamboo production process]
- Some brands even make statements that certifications (like Oeko-Tex Standard 100) mean organic. This simply isn’t what this certification covers. It means that at any tested stage, any chemical residue is within allowable maximum limits, depending on the end use (i.e. baby clothing is more strict than adult).
- The way bamboo is GROWN is usually good – very fast to grow and generally pesticide free
- Something like 100% organic flax linen for its sustainability and feel and fairtrade organic cotton that uses up to 90% less water than conventional cotton (which has been said to be ‘about as thirsty as bamboo’), supports small-scale farmers, food security and is an incredibly soft and beautiful product. Certified throughout all processing by the leading GOTS organic standard and free from toxic chemicals.
- There can be new developments in bamboo that push it more towards being natural and organic – mechanically or enzyme produced bamboo
- No organic certifying body has certified the full production of any rayon, viscose or even Lyocell fabrics. This relates to use of nanoparticles, dyes, anti-pilling or anti-crease treatments and the overall chemical process needed to turn had pulp into soft bamboo fabric.
- Oeko-Tex 100 certifies lyocell fabrics, but this relates only to the residue left on the fabric for the end consumer and does not look at any chemicals used in growing, processing, dyeing or finishing. Some fabrics use the OICA, USDA/NOP certification, but note that this relates only to crops, not the rest of the process from there.
- The leading standard, the GOTS organic certification does not certify chemically produced fabrics made from bamboo due to the chemical processing.
- Bamboo is turned into a fabric through a viscose, rayon or the more sustainable lyocell method. This means that through a mixture of chemicals and water, the hard fibre of the bamboo plant is extensively broken down and then through a spaghetti-like machine converted into a fabric. There is one group in China who hold the patents globally so this is likely the source of your bamboo fabric, regardless of where the final garment is made.
- Next, the rayon or viscose process turns hard bamboo fibre into a soft pulp that can then be dissolved into a polymer solution, extracted and finally ‘spun’ into threads. This process can use more than 10 toxic chemicals, vast amounts of energy and water. The waste from this process, and the chemicals along with it, can too often be released into waterways without treatment. This is further compounded by the use of toxic dyes, anti-pilling and finishing chemicals that are often used to give it a soft silky feel. In fact, finishing treatments have been found to be one of the most polluting parts of the textiles production process.
- Other alternatives to chemically processed bamboo are…
- Mechanically (not chemically) produced true bamboo linen. This is a natural fibre, much like hemp or flax linen. The resulting fabric is much like a hemp
- If you really want bamboo, and don’t mind if the processes are reliant on significant chemical use and treatments, then do seek out a lyocell product.
- The major benefits of the lyocell method is that it uses a less toxic solvent (N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide) of which the majority is held in a closed loop system, being repeatedly used. When it is disposed of, waste is required to be treated before being released. So the lyocell process is a great one to sustainably extract pulp that can be made into woven sheets from hard bamboo.
- The lyocell process, however, is just one part of the full process and it is important to ensure that dyes, anti-pilling and finishing chemicals, as well as by-products from the lyocell production are also non-toxic. Many dyes might be labelled ‘vegetable based’ but in practice, true vegetable dyes will wash out quickly, so the reality is as it isn’t certified organic, you have no certainty that the dye base isn’t toxic too.
- Formaldehyde is one chemical that has been used to address the pilling issue. Research shows that in practice, formaldehyde can be found in NMMO and cellulose solutions.
- Monocel is very new to the market … using more naturally sourced dyes and keeping track of the sustainable farming of bamboo crops. [few people are using Monocel right now and a] break down of all processes and chemicals used [can be hard to get]. But this would definitely be [a] preferred choice of the bamboo options or a sustainably sourced woodstock version of lyocell which may create less waste than that produced from bamboo.
- Now, another piece of wording you might see, is the use of the term “organic solvent” in the description of the bamboo lyocell process. Yes, NMMO is classified as an organic chemical or organic compound. As are petrochemicals or volatile organic compounds, which we definitely want to avoid. This as a very separate definition to what you may normally expect organic to mean, it is based on the chemical definition.
- The second alternative is a relatively new fabric by Lenzing called ECOVERO, which uses wood pulp from sustainable plantations (FSC certified), uses 50% less water than traditional viscose fabrics (like eucalyptus or bamboo viscose) and provides transparency in its supply chain.
Some companies or manufacturers that use bamboo cellulose do have a processing procedure where they treat their wastewater, and minimise chemical disposal into the environment – but there is no official organic or other type of certification on this yet.
- It is important that bamboo come from FSC (the Forest Stewardship Council) certified stands
- Some [you have to check this on a case by case basis] … bamboo viscose fiber … is produced in a process that has no water pollution or solid waste disposal problems, and that has only minimal air pollution
Organic Fibres & Fabrics – Is Organic Cotton The Answer?
Organic cotton obviously has the main requirements of staying away from GMO seeds, and synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, intensive farming practices and synthetic production chemicals.
An organic cotton certification like GOTS certainly has a lot of benefits in this regard, and should not be discredited at all.
It’s a good initiative, organic cotton and organic cotton certification is not perfect.
As noted by fashionhedge.com, some potential issues with a purely organic approach to fibres and fabrics such as organic cotton are:
- Some organic pesticides can be as harmful as synthetic ones
- GMOs although controversial, may not be as dangerous, unsafe or bad to use as made out to be
- Organic farming can be more expensive and labor intensive, less efficient, and less profitable for farmers
- Because of a decreased yield (compared to regular agriculture), organic farming can require the same resources for less output – raising sustainability questions
- Organic cotton is still cotton – it uses a lot of water compared to some other plants and fibre crops
- Bamboo for example uses far less irrigated water and chemicals to grow than cotton [but bamboo viscose can use a lot of chemicals]
- Organic cotton still implies using some chemicals, a lot of water, labor and land in a rather inefficient way
- Companies engaging in organic cotton manufacturing are taking a risk, not only financial but operational, given the challenges and higher variability of organic agriculture.
- Those efforts are appreciated and, as consumers, we have to look much closer and evaluate the big picture and the entire supply chain, not just whether something is organic or not.
Organic cotton and GOTS might be the first important piece of the puzzle. There is still room to improve in terms of technology, farming methods and production methods.
One idea some people have is to combine organic methods with GMO seeds – so you get the benefits that GMOs provide, but minimise the synthetic chemicals as they do with organic farming and production.
The overall solution (using a numbers and science based approach over supporting ideologies) is to keep moving towards a model that is sustainable (uses resources efficiently), uses few or no harmful chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, is eco friendly in other ways, uses fair labor and doesn’t impact wildlife negatively.
Further Resources On The Truth About Organic Fibres & Fabrics
Two additional useful resources on exploring this topic deeper are:
- https://fashionhedge.com/2015/03/12/the-truth-about-organic-cotton/ – explores whether organic cotton is actually better than regular cotton
- https://www.elkieark.com/blogs/eco-living-sustainable-living/organic-bamboo-bed-linen – explores the organic bamboo issue in greater depth
- https://www.twosistersecotextiles.com/pages/learn – some good in depth, transparent knowledge about fabrics, and organic fibres and fabrics
1. https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic (main page)
2. https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic (rules, regulations, definitions etc.)