Organic Clothing: Can You Read Between the Lines on the Tag?

If the tag says organic, it's an uber-eco choice when you're buying clothing, towels, sheets or pillows, right? That depends.

There’s a big difference between organic fibers and the clothing, bedding, towels and other products they end up in. Organic clothing can be made with organically grown fibers (like organic cotton), and labels or tags can state this. But the fabric still can be subjected to synthetic chemicals used in finishes and dyes, and these treatments may also contain heavy metals and petroleum-based substances.

So if the word "organic" on the tag isn't the whole story, how do you know whether you're really buying something eco-friendly?

Organic certification for clothes is different than for food

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 tags, labels and packaging that speaks to the environmental friendliness.

1. Agricultural certifications indicate the fibers were organically grown

  • The Organic Trade Association (OTA). 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.”
  • Control Union, formerly known as SKAL. A Dutch organization that certifies agricultural products in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia.
  • The Soil Association. This UK organization developed textile standards in 2003 based on criteria established by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM).

2. Textile certifications indicate the fabric / product was made in an eco-friendly fashion

  • Oeko-Tex, or the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology, introduced 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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. 

3. GOTS certification does both

GOTS certified logo for organic clothing label

The global tangle of organic textile certifications could change if the USDA’s National Organic Program adopts the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). These standards are the result of a joint effort between the OTA, the Soil Association, IVN and JOCA to develop a common standard that would cover all the steps involved in getting organic cotton and all natural fabrics from field to finished product.

The GOTS standards cover production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, export, import and distribution of all natural fibers.

Only GOTS certified companies can display the global standard label on their products. GOTS currently allows these two levels or grades of certification:

  • "Organic” or “organic in conversion.” Items in this category must be made from fabrics that contain at least 95 percent 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 synthetics 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.

The dyes allowed under GOTS are limited to natural dyes and some synthetic dyes that meet GOTS specific requirements, including limitations on heavy metals, formaldehyde, pesticides, and azo dyes (which are considered chemical carcinogens).

Bottom line: Shop brands that cover all the bases

If want to buy organic clothing and natural textile products that don't come with asterisks, look a little beyond the word "organic."

  1. Look for the GOTS logo or a combination of the agricultural and textile certifications listed above. Not all GOTS certified textile makers put the symbol on their labels or tags, so if you don't see it, ask the company whose brand name is on the label. (Gaiam buys only from textile makers that are GOTS certified.)

  2. Look for terms like "low-impact dyes," "low eco-impact manufacturing," "no chemical finishes," "clay dyes" or "fiber-reactive dyes," all more eco-friendly alternatives to conventional petroleum-based dyes and synthetic finishes.

  3. Read the company's website or ask a customer service rep about the dyes and finishes they use, and how the company monitors what happens to its fabrics and clothing after the fibers are harvested.


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

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