organic fabrics

How to Find Organic Clothes That Are Truly Organic

The USDA has issued new rules for organic fabrics that will make it harder for companies to fake it.

By Emily Main

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When you decide to buy organic cotton clothing, even if it's just a pair of organic socks, you'd like to think you're getting a product that isn't saturated in chemicals or off-gassing known carcinogens. And that the product was, throughout its production cycle, kinder to the planet than its nonorganic counterpart. That hasn't always been the case, though.

The definition for organic fabrics and textiles has never been fully transparent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Trade Commission require that any article of clothing or fabric advertised as "organic" be made with fibers from USDA-certified organic crops, such as cotton or flax (used to make linen), but the regulation pretty much ends there. Any manufacturer can take that organic cotton, dye it with a bright blue dye that contains cancer-causing cobalt, and finish it with a chemical treatment that may emit formaldehyde. And the item doesn't even have to be made from 100 percent organic fibers; it can legally contain a mix of organic and nonorganic materials and still be labeled "made with organic cotton."

THE DETAILS: That's all about to change. A few weeks ago, the USDA announced a new rule regarding the labeling of textiles, even mattresses, that contain organic material, requiring that any textile advertised as "organic" must be third-party certified under National Organic Program standards throughout the entire production process—no more cancer-causing dyes or finishes and no more fudging the data on organic content. Manufacturers now must specify what percentage of organic material a given item contains.

However, because the National Organic Program standards apply to food, not fabrics, it's unlikely that anyone will see a USDA Organic seal on a set of towels anytime soon. So the agency is encouraging textile manufacturers to turn to the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS IWG), which is currently the only third-party certification set up to accommodate organic-fabric producers who want to adhere to the USDA's new ruling. And in fact, the USDA specified the GOTS certification in its recent rule change. Any product that is certified under GOTS standards can be labeled organic. It just won't be able to bear the USDA Organic seal.

While other eco-labels for clothing and fabrics address raw materials, chemical finishes, or labor standards, the comprehensive GOTS certification is the only program out there that addresses all of those and then some. Raw materials must be certified organic under National Organic Program standards, and at least 70 percent of the final product must contain organic fibers. Because some clothes need a synthetic fiber for elasticity or durability, the standard allows up to 10 percent of the content to come from polyester or rayon (up to 25 percent for socks, leggings, and sportswear). By 2014, the standard will require that any polyester used come from recycled material.

The agency puts strict limits on the types of fabric dyes that can be used and prohibits toxic fabric finishes, including sand-blasting of denim (which poses a health threat to workers), chlorine bleaches, formaldehyde-based finishing treatments, and nanoparticles intended to make a product "antibacterial." A factory's effluent water must be treated and filtered before release. As for worker welfare, the certification addresses workers' ability to unionize, forbids child labor, and requires that workers are paid a living wage. Not even zippers (no chrome or nickel allowed) and screen printing (no toxic PVC-based inks can be used in T-shirt designs) escape scrutiny. And throughout the entire process, all GOTS-certified items must be kept separate from non-GOTS-certified products to prevent contamination.

WHAT IT MEANS: The next time you buy organic clothes, you can be confident you're getting what you pay for. The GOTS standard for textiles is just as strict as the USDA's organic standard for food, says Kelly O'Donnell, inspection coordinator at Oregon Tilth, one of 14 agencies accredited to certify farms and textile production facilities under GOTS. "We apply the same standard to our food, why not with our clothing?" she says.

The new USDA ruling, combined with the stringent GOTS certification, will also help drive change within the textile industry, says Marci Zaroff, chief marketing and sustainability officer for Portico Brand Group, which includes a number of organic home-textile and clothing companies. "There's always been a very arbitrary definition of organic in the textile space," she says, making it hard for legitimately organic clothing to compete with cheaper clothes masquerading as organic when they're treated with toxic finishes. "We all lose when people cheat."

Of course, there are costs associated with getting a product certified, and that could price a lot of enthusiastic, eco-minded designers out of the organic textile market, says John Patrick, owner of the clothing design firm John Patrick Organic. "What has really driven sustainability in the fashion industry is the small designers," he says. "They have a real commitment to sustainability and organics, but they don't have it in their budget to pay for this certification," which can be expensive for a small operation.

Still, some of the biggest clothing and fabric retailers out there are getting in on the GOTS game. Zaroff helped Target convert all of its organic cotton sheets and towels to GOTS-certified products, and the retail chain Eileen Fisher is starting to incorporate GOTS-certified clothing into its stores. Online and mail-order retailer Gaiam sources textiles only from suppliers that are GOTS certified. Products certified under the standard are usually advertised as such. Some may bear a hang tag with the certification's logo, a T-shirt surrounded by the words "Global Organic Textile Standard."

Look for GOTS-certification next time you buy organic clothing or textiles. If you can't find anything you like that's GOTS certified, here are a few alternatives:

• Buy secondhand. You can't get much greener than buying recycled clothing, which keeps them out of the waste stream and reduces the need to create and package new stuff. Visit thrift and "buy-sell-trade" stores to find cheap clothing—and support a local business while you're at it.

• Skip the bamboo. Often cast in the glow of sustainability, bamboo clothing is, more often than not, simply rayon, a synthetic fiber that requires caustic solvents to turn from a grass into a usable fiber. Bamboo fibers aren't allowed in most GOTS-certified clothes (unless they're part of the 10 percent of allowable synthetics).

• Shop local. Just like buying local food from a local farmer, buying clothes from a local independent designer allows you to ask detailed questions about dyes used, where the fabric was sourced, and how the raw materials were grown. "I support the GOTS standard 100 percent," says Patrick. "But I'm also independent. I'm a local designer, and I like to keep it really simple." He has one factory in New York City, and keeps close tabs on all aspects of his supply chain, using organic cotton and other low-impact materials. "There are hundreds of us out there, just like there were in the early days of the organic food movement."