The Fabric of Our Lives?

Snuggly-soft cotton and warm, comforting wool — they’re natural fibers, which makes them natural choices for living organically, right? Well, sort of.

Natural fibers are the way to go if you’re living organically, but there’s a difference — a big difference — between organic fibers and the clothing and other items they end up in, and it’s definitely something to keep in mind when shopping.

Items can be made with organically grown fibers, and they can state that they are. But the fabric still can be subjected to unwanted chemicals, such as finishes and dyes that contain heavy metals and petroleum-based substances. There are companies that don’t use these chemicals — Earth Creations, which uses clay dyes to color its products, is one of them; catalog clothier Sahalie carries clay-dyed pieces as well. Fiber-reactive or low-impact dyes are another alternative to conventional petroleum-based dyes.

While you won’t see textile products with USDA organic certification (the USDA only certifies the fibers, not the products themselves), you might see wording on labels and packaging that does speak to organic certification or states that products were made in an environmentally friendly fashion. There aren’t global standards for organic textile production, but there are a number of certification and accreditation programs in place, established by various governments and private-sector organizations. Among them are:

  • The Organic Trade Association. The OTA’s standards define four levels of organic labeling, ranging from “100 percent organic” (all components, including sewing thread, are organically grown and certified) to “Less than 70 percent organically produced constituents.”
  • The Soil Association. This UK organization developed textile standards in 2003 based on criteria established by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM).
  • SKAL. A Dutch organization, which certifies agricultural products in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia.
  • The International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology. Better known as Oeko-Tex, this association introduced its Oeko-Tex Standard 100 in the early 1990s. Textiles that carry the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label have been tested for and found free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances. Kids’ clothing company Hanna Andersson is one that sells a number of styles bearing Okeo-Tex Standard 100 certification.
  • bluesign. This Switzerland-based standards organization emphasizes environmentally sound and sustainable manufacturing and production. It states that its standard “certifies substances that have been rigorously tested against harmful effects on humans and the environment and for efficient consumption of relevant resources.” Patagonia was the first clothing brand to join bluesign; The North Face is one of the most recent.
  • Ecolabel. Ecolabel was established by the EU in the early 1990s to encourage environmentally friendly manufacturing practices.
  • IVN. Germany’s International Association Natural Textile Industry has a two-tier labeling system — IVN Certified Best and IVN Certified.
  • KRAV. This Sweden-based organization also has organic textile standards based on IFOAM’s criteria.
  • The Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA). Established in 2000, this organization certifies and promotes organic cotton products and garments in Japan.

The global tangle of organic textile certifications could change if the USDA’s National Organic Program adopts GOTS, or the Global Organic Textile Standards. These standards are the result of a joint effort between four key organizations — The Organic Trade Association, IVN, the Soil Association, and JOCA— which worked to develop a common standard that would cover organic textiles — not just cotton, but all natural fibers — from field to finished product. The standards they developed cover production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation, and distribution of all natural fibers.

Presently, GOTS specifies two types of labels, or grades:

  • "Organic” or “organic in conversion.” Items in this category must be made from fabrics that contain at least 95 percent of certified organic fibers or fibers from fields that are in the process of converting or transitioning from conventional to organic status. The rest can be non-organic fibers, including certain sythetics and recycled fibers.
  • "Made with X percent organic materials” or “made with X percent organic in conversion materials.” Items bearing this label must be made from fabrics containing between 70 to 95 percent certified organic fibers or organic conversion fibers. The rest, up to 30 percent, can be non-organic fibers.
  • Certified companies can display the global standard label on their products.

For a really thorough discussion on the state of organic clothing standards and organic clothing in general, go to the website for Lotus Organics. It’s home to some great eco-friendly clothing as well as a blog written by the company’s founders, Shellie and Michael Lackman, who are passionate about eco-fashion and update their blog regularly. 

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss.

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