When it comes to organic fibres – there’s different regulations, certifications, labelling used, and so on.
What do they each mean, and how do they impact the final product you buy?
We’ve provided a bit more insight into what you might be getting when you buy an organic fibre or fabric.
Summary – What Are You Really Getting When You Buy Organic Fibres & Fabrics?
There’s three levels of organic fibre classification you might want to be aware of and look at:
- At the country or State level, there’s regulations about organic agricultural and fibre based products
- Companies themselves may also market and label their products as being ‘organic’, and they may also provide very little, or a lot of information on their website of their entire supply and production chain on how their products are made
- There’s also dedicated certification bodies/organisations that provide their certification to products that meet their certification requirements and criteria (GOTS is one example)
Right now, the two best ways to know that you are getting an organic fibre might be:
- To buy a GOTS certified organic cotton product (but, read the GOTS criteria and standards beforehand to make sure you are satisfied with them)
- Or, research a company’s sourcing/growing, production, dying, bleaching and finishing processes, and make sure you are satisfied yourself with how natural, organic or sustainable their entire process is. Look at the eco and social footprint of the entire supply and production process. A company like TENCEL is fairly transparent with their processes at this point in time
Organic products currently aren’t perfect – there’s some questions over some naturally derived chemicals in terms of their true eco or human impact, and also questions over their performance (e.g. vegetable based dyes)
Some organic farming practices also have questions over performance measures like yield, revenues, resource usage, and so on
Ultimately, a consumer should decide which environmental, economic, social and performance measurements/requirements are important to them, and make sure the products they are buying are meeting those requirements
Some sources say that some of the most sustainable fibres right now that also provide a good end product might be recycled cotton, GOTS certified organic cotton, 100% organic linen, and the TENCEL fibres like lyocell and modal.
But, there’s still a lot of room for improvement for natural and organic fibres across many measures (transparency to the consumer is one area for example)
Some people suggest that the best long term option might be to combine the best features from the conventional, and also the natural/organic farming and production processes to produce the best product
Regulations for organic fibres and fabrics provided 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 of what a product represents.
You can’t just rely on the label on the product provided by a company either – it may be misleading/not transparent, or just not give you enough information (on the supply and production chain).
Instead – it’s probably best to look to see if a product carries certain organic certification from recognised and established certifying bodies (that give you clear guidelines and expectations of what you get when you’re buying products or materials carrying their certification).
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 – read more about organic cotton and GOTS certification here.
A few things you might need to be aware of with some common fibres and certifications, and assessing how organic they are, are:
- Bamboo – is currently 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. You can refer to the sustainability section of TENCEL’s site for more information on certain sustainability certifications (but, these certifications are necessarily organic certifications)
- 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 defined as different things in different countries.
Different countries are going to have different regulation requirements for how producers are allowed to grow or produce materials and products, and how sellers are allowed to label their products.
You have to refer to the individual organic regulations in specific countries.
In the US for example, the USDA regulates organic ‘food, feed, and fiber’ – essentially agricultural products.
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 and descriptions here
A company should state on their website, in the product description, or 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 necessarily strictly about being organic, but have 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
Read more about the OECO TEX standards in this resource
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, or not offer much information on what you are actually buying compared to a certification standard that you can check from a third party.
An example of how confusing labelling might happen, or how some people might think they are getting an organic product that in fact isn’t organic, 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
Elkie Ark has provided a great article where they discuss what you are actually getting with organic bamboo fibre/fabric and other fibres. They make some great points about transparency in the growing, production, dying, bleaching and finishing of different fibres and fabrics.
Below are some of our paraphrased and summarised points from their article
- There’s a difference between organic bamboo, and rayon bamboo
- What is currently promoted about the benefits of bamboo products by companies and influencers might not be accurate – behind the scenes, the eco impact could be more negative than what is reported, and the products might not be adequate quality
- Some companies and marketers might not be purposely promoting inaccurate information – they may simply have no idea what actually goes on in the ‘behind the scenes’ production processes (due to a lack of information from supply chains for example)
- Some of the things you have to look at and find out to assess the true sustainability of bamboo are how it’s grown, chemicals used in processing, whether it retains it’s natural properties like being anti microbial, how much water and energy it uses, whether it’s biodegradable, and so on
- There’s also the performance to consider – some bamboo products might pill easier, and might not be very durable (they might degrade and wear out quickly)
- To turn bamboo from a wood to a soft fabric, it takes chemicals like sulphuric acid or formaldehyde. To stop pilling, the fibres/fabric might also need to be dyed and finished with chemicals
- Carbon disulphide is a chemical that can be used in the viscose production method, and it can be toxic and harmful to workers’ health
- So, bamboo can be certified as being sustainably grown, but, the viscose/rayon production process is often not organic or natural
- Some of the things that consumers might look for in the criteria provided by organic certification bodies might be:
- Toxic pesticide free
- GMO free
- Toxic bleach free
- AZO, and toxic dye free
- Heavy metal free
- Reduces and captures toxic waste and waste water
- End product contains no toxic chemicals
- GOTS might be one of the most comprehensive organic certifications there is for organic fibres
- GOTS Organic Fairtrade, and recycled cotton might be two of the most eco friendly fibres when comparing cotton, bamboo and different rayons for indicators such as water use, chemicals, global warming and natural resources depletion
- There’s reason to believe that bamboo, even though traditionally believed to not use as much agricultural chemicals, is using more pesticides and fetilizers, as well as agricultural land with increased demand of bamboo worldwide
- Bamboo is roughly about as water/irrigated water hungry as organic cotton
- Some organic cottons are primarily rain fed, which is more sustainable
- At this stage, there is no organic certification that covers the entire supply and production process of bamboo rayon
- LENZING and TENCEL fibres are some of the more sustainable fibres available on the market
- Belgian linen has eco friendly advantages such as reduced waste, zero irrigation, and so on
- Mechanically produced true bamboo linen can be sustainable
- Some lyocells that come out of China might have some questions over them – apart from the production process, you have to watch out for the dyes, anti-pilling and finishing chemicals, as well as that by-products from the lyocell production are also non-toxic
- There can be problems with using vegetable based or organic based dyes over heavy metal dyes
- Overall, 100% organic flax linen and GOTS certified organic cotton might be some of the most sustainable, but also durable, best looking and best feeling fabrics
- [In terms of where the bamboo comes from …] It is important that bamboo come from FSC (the Forest Stewardship Council) certified stands
- Some … 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 [but, you have to check this on a case by case basis with the company’s website, individual product, and label]
There is currently no official organic bamboo certification yet.
Organic Fibres & Fabrics – Is Organic Cotton The Answer?
Organic cotton generally involves no GMO seeds, and no use of synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, no intensive or unsustainable farming practices, and use of naturally derived production chemicals.
An organic cotton certification like GOTS can certainly meet requirements similar to these.
It’s a good initiative, but, organic cotton and organic cotton certification is not perfect.
- 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.
The Conversation reports on using a farming approach with GMOs compared to a non GMO organic approach:
GMO technology (compared to regular cotton) –
- Reduced pesticide use by 37%
- Increased crop yield by 22%
- Increased farmer profits by 68%.
The yield and profit gains are considerably higher in developing countries than in developed countries, and 53% of GM crops are grown in developing countries.
We have GM crop plants with enhanced nutritional qualities, pest and disease resistance, larger grain sizes and the ability to produce more food with lower fertiliser inputs. Many of these plants have been modified with only a few DNA letters altered from the “wild” genes.
Adoption would massively improve the productivity of organic agriculture, and the productivity boost would help make organic food price competitive … let’s talk about GM organics.
… the case-by-case scrutiny of GM crops would allow the organic industry to show it is willing to use the smartest technologies for improving the sustainable productivity of food and fibre production.
It’s also worth looking at the pros and cons of both organic cotton, and GMO crops and food:
1. https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic (main page)
2. https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic (rules, regulations, definitions etc.)