Cool News (BACK
April 27, 2006
"Certified Organic Clothing" What Does
By Michael Lackman
A recent survey documents that there are still five
people (two living in Montana, one in Missouri, one in northern Maine and
one in the White House) who have not yet heard that Elle and Vanity Fair
have released “green” issues
for May  to celebrate and anoint sustainable, green clothing and fashion.
In many ways this marks the coming of age for sustainable clothing and the
debutante party for green fashion.
Most people in the environmental community have at
least a fuzzy, smushy idea of what sustainable textiles are and what sustainable
fashion is all about, but their definitions can vary widely. Some people
would include any garment that has been made from recycled material – such
as a dress made from old umbrellas – as being a sustainable garment.
How about eco-fleece … a
material made from old, plastic soda bottles? And what about high performance
and “smart wools”? How can a synthetic fiber such as lycra be used
in activewear clothing labeled as organic? Fabrics from manmade fibers lyocell
/ Tencel have been called eco-friendly. Do they qualify as being sustainable?
Do they qualify as being organic? What is the relationship between organic
clothing and sustainable clothing?
These are not easy questions because there are no global or even U.S. domestic
standards for organic or sustainable textiles such as there are for USDA organic
produce which specify that packaged food and personal care products sold as “USDA
Organic” must contain 95% organic ingredients produced without conventional
fertilizers or synthetic pesticides and use sustainable and environmentally-friendly
agricultural methods. The USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the government
organization responsible for regulating all agricultural products and foods
in the U.S. The other 5% of the USDA Organic food and personal care products
can contain synthetic ingredients, but only those on a USDA-approved list of
synthetic ingredients that are not readily available in organic form. This
organic standard for food products, while being too weak IMHO, gives an objective
formula for labeling a food product as organic.
There are USDA standards for
certifying cotton plants and the cotton fibers that they produce as being organic
because cotton seeds and cotton oils are also important food products. So your
favorite cotton shirt can be made from 100% certified organic cotton even though
the cotton fabric might be full of chemical finishes and heavy metal dyes.
For any product sold in the U.S. – regardless
of where it was grown or produced – to carry the USDA Organic logo, it
must have been inspected by a certified agent of the USDA certification program.
This is the current state of government regulations for organic fibers in the
Internationally, the organic market landscape is littered with dozens of private
sector standards and government regulations and a vast array of local and national
certification and accreditation systems. Two international organizations, Codex
Alimentarius and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements
(IFOAM) attempt to provide a global structure for organic principals. The Codexs
Alimentarius Commission was created in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) of the United Nations to develop globally recognized and accepted food
standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair trade practices
in the food industries by creating and promoting coordination of all food standards
established by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.
The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was
established in 1972 to support and promote organic agriculture by creating
international organic agriculture standards and policies. IFOAM has been an
FAO-accredited international organization since 1997 and is an international
NGO observer at Codex Alimentarius. IFOAM attempts to promote organic agricultural
practices that benefit farmers, workers, traders, retailers and consumers.
The interests of all these different stakeholders sometimes appear to be in
conflict and another role of IFOAM is to attempt to reconcile different interests.
For example, consumers want inexpensive produce but farmers and shop owners
want to make profit so they might want to take steps which would lower their
costs but might not produce goods which are of the highest standards and quality
for consumers. Promoting social justice is an important goal of IFOAM and the
social aspects can bring additional costs for inspections and audits that must
be balanced in the end by the economic rewards for all the market partners.
An important role of IFOAM is to establish and oversee organic accreditation
processes for accrediting organizations that will be responsible for certifying
that producers are following the organic standards. Accreditation is the procedure
that IFOAM and other regulatory bodies use to allow other organizations the
right to evaluate the compliance of producers and manufacturers according to
the organic standards established by IFOAM. At the international level, the
International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS) accredits certification
bodies according to IFOAM organic standards.
In 1998, IFOAM published their Organic Textile Standards to create a foundation
to harmonize organic standards across all the organic markets internationally.
Different countries and different communities have different traditions, needs,
and different products. These differences have been reflected in slightly differing
organic textile standards that have been developed by a handful of independent,
private organizations in the U.S. and internationally. Some of the more influential
organic organizations developing standards for organic and sustainable textiles
and garments are the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in the U.S., the Soil
Association in the U.K., the International Association Natural Textile Industry
(IVN) in Germany, Demeter in Europe and internationally, KRAV in Sweden and
the Scandinavian countries, and the Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA).
These are private, not governmental, trade organizations that derive their
influence and credibility from the individuals and businesses which are members
of their organization. As large trade organizations, they are influential in
helping define standards and in working with government departments to legislate
standards for organic products. Each of these organic trade associations has
developed standards for defining and regulating what constitutes organic and
sustainable fabrics, textiles and garments. These standards are voluntary,
but if their members and others wish to use the label of an organic trade association
certifying their products as organic, then they must be certified by their
organic trade association.
The standards of the different organizations attempt to codify the organic
fiber handling and processing standards for all natural fibers including cotton,
wool (from sheep, alpacas, llamas and other exotic animal fibers), cashmere
(from goats), hemp, silk, flax / linen, jute, ramie, and new plant fibers such
as bamboo and soy. Environmentally and socially balanced organic textile standards
should have two critical similarities:
• Lowest practical ecological impact during the growing and processing
of natural, organic fibers into textiles and garments. All natural fibers must
be certified grown organically. At the present time, the use of chemical compounds
in organic fiber processing cannot be completely eliminated, the types of materials – such
as low impact dyes – used for organic fiber processing can be greatly
restricted and the use and disposal of the materials is environmentally sustainable
to minimize harm to people and the environment.
• Fair Trade guidelines that respect and promote a positive social impact
for all growers, employees and workers involved in the complete supply chain
for bringing sustainable and organic clothing and garments to market. The unfortunate
reality is that several trade and standards organizations have not yet adopted
Fair Trade guidelines into their standards but international pressure is slowly
moving all to promote social justice. Somehow, it is inconceivable and unconscionable
to imagine putting a “green” sustainable label on a garment that
was produced through the misery of workers under sweatshop conditions
Let’s take a peak at how the differing organic trade associations are
coalescing into global standards for organic sustainable textiles.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the 800-pound
gorilla in the U.S. for promoting and advancing organic agriculture and food
products in the public awareness and within U.S. and state government organizations,
especially the USDA. Founded 20 years ago and touting 1500 business members,
the OTA is working to expand its influence from agriculture and foods into
organic textiles and body care products. The OTA invested five years developing “The American
Organic Standards for Fiber Processing” standard and it is still undergoing
modification and revision. They are currently on version 6 of the document.
The OTA standard defines four levels of organic labeling:
1. “100% Organic”. All components are organically grown and certified,
including the sewing threads, and all processes used to manufacture the garment
conform to the processing requirements stated in the standard;
2. “Organic”. At least 95% (by weight) of the agricultural fibers
are organically grown and all processing adheres to the environmental processing
requirements given in the document;
3. “Made with organic (specified fiber products)”. At least 70%
(by weight) of the garment have been organically grown;
4. “Less than 70% organically produced constituents”. Maybe it
has some organic fiber content, maybe not. All non-organic garment components
may be processed and handled without regard to the OTA standards. What you
see is what you get.
For levels 1 through 3, all chemicals used in the manufacturing
processes – knitting,
weaving, cleaning, scouring, dyeing, and finishing – must conform to
the process requirements defined in the OTA document to insure environmental
sustainability and must not be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, toxic
to mammals, or an endocrine disrupter. All degreasers, detergents, surfactants,
and soaps for scouring wool and animal fibers must be biodegradable. Synthetic
waxes can be used on yarn but they must be water soluble and free of alkyl
phenol ethoxylates. All knitting and weaving oils must be water soluble. Any
non-organic items in the garment such as button, zippers, elastic yarns or
fabrics must be on the list of approved items for which there are no organic
counterparts available (sounds a wee bit like the standards of organic food
products approved by the USDA with OTA backing). The use of chlorine bleach,
plastisols, some AZO dyes, formaldehyde and synthetic chemicals for functional
finishes (all the “anti-” stuff such as anti-wrinkle, anti-fungal,
anti-pilling, anti-odor, etc.) is prohibited. Also, no Genetically Modified
Organisms (GMOs), including GM cotton, are allowed in any phase of the process
from growing organic fibers to final finishing and packaging.
The OTA standards are clearly intended to create guidelines for creating textiles
and apparel that are environmentally friendly and generally healthy to wear
- even though people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) are often troubled
by some of the dyes and other chemicals that are allowed. The OTA American
Organic Standards do not contain guidelines for Fair Trade Practices.
The Soil Association in the U.K. developed organic textile standards in 2003
that were closely based on criteria established by the International Federation
of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). The Soil Association is accredited
by IFOAM to certify organic producers and manufacturers according to IFOAM
organic standards. IFOAM accreditation is awarded to certification bodies,
such as the Soil Association, that use certification standards that meet the
IFOAM Basic Standards.
The Soil Association organic textile standards use
a two-tier label. To qualify for the highest organic standard, raw materials
must contain at least 95% certified organic materials – excluding accessories such as buttons and zippers.
Provided that they are not on the list of toxic and disallowed fibers and components,
the remaining 5% of fibers can be non-organic or synthetic if sufficient organic
fibers are not available. In this way, your favorite workout pant can contain
4% lycra and still be labeled “organic”. GMO’s and GM cotton
are also banned in the Soil Association organic textile standard.
The Soil Association requires that all licensees certified to use the Soil
Association label comply with the UN Convention for Human Rights and the core
standards of the International Labor Organization.
All other organic trade associations that have created organic textile standards
have grown out of the organic agriculture market. What is interesting about
the International Association Natural Textile Industy (IVN) in Germany is that
it is composed of textile and garment manufacturers that created a standard
to product high-quality natural textiles according to the strictest ecological
and social guidelines. Many of the IVN standards for fiber growth and production
are directly based on IFOAM standards. IVN also has created standards which
cover not only the growing of fibers and manufacturing of fabrics and textiles,
but also the storage, transportation and shipping of materials at each stage
of the supply chain. IVN standards also include fair labor guidelines as set
by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The IVN uses a two-tier label system (IVN certified
Best and IVN certified) similar to that imposed by the Soil Association.
The two levels are very similar. The largest difference – and the biggest surprise – is
that IVN certified fibers can be conventionally, non-organically grown; except
for cotton which must be organically grown for both levels of IVN labeling.
The IVN certification process covers all phases – fiber
production, preparatory treatment for finishing processes, dyeing and printing,
finishing, and accessories. Metals in all accessories, such as zippers, fasteners,
and buckles, must not contain chromium or nickel, and any elastic bands in
garments such as underwear or pants must be covered with cotton so that the
elastic does not touch skin when worn. Garment accessories such as labels,
shoulder pads and pocket linings must be 100% natural fibers.
The IVN textile standard basically bans all chemical
finishes but does allow for mechanical finishing. Mechanical finishing is
rather interesting and used in some of the more natural high performance
fabrics and “smart wools”.
We’ll go into it more deeply in another posting.
Founded in 1997 to promote closer cooperation in “the legal, economic
and spiritual sphere,” Demeter International is composed of 18 members
from Europe, the U.S., Africa and New Zealand representing 3,000 producers
in almost 40 countries. The soul of Demeter’s vision and mission is embedded
in the philosophy of spiritualist and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).
Anthroposophy is interesting in its own, but as the
foundation for an organic agricultural movement it is fascinating. According
to the writings of Rudof Steiner, “Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual
in the human being to the spiritual in the universe. It arises in people as
a need of the heart and feeling life. … Therefore, anthroposophists
are those who experience, as an essential need of life, certain questions on
the nature of the human being and the universe, just as one experiences hunger
Steiner lectured on the “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture” which
developed into agricultural practices that they called “Biodynamics” and
became the basis of Demeter International. In the early 1990’s, Demeter
became one of the first organizations to establish organic agriculture standards.
In 2002, Demeter published their “Standards for the certification of
textiles from Demeter fibers”. Essentially, Demeter International adopted
the production standards of the IVN as applied to their Biodynamically grown
The spiritual and philosophical aspects of agriculture and all that is produced
and manufactured from natural fibers is much more pronounced within Demeter
International than any of the other organic trade organizations.
In Greek mythology, Demeter was the earth goddess who brought forth all the
fruits, grains, vegetables and abundance of the earth. Demeter also gave mankind
the knowledge of sowing and farming.
With about 30 members representing farmers, processors, manufacturers, labor
organizations, environmental groups, and animal welfare groups, KRAV is the
major organic organization in Sweden and the Scandinavian countries. Accredited
by IFOAM, KRAV has developed organic textile standards that comply with the
IFOAM basic standards.
There do appear to be some surprises in the KRAV organic
standards. There are no standards requiring that sewing thread or the composition
of labels be organic. Polyester and viscose can be used in KRAV organic garments
if there are no certified fabrics available that are appropriate. Absorbable
Halogenated Hydrocarbons (AOX) can be used as long as they are less than
1% of any other input to the manufacturing process. AOX is associated with
toxic dioxins that can be a result of chlorine used during the bleaching
process. Most organic textile standards prohibit AOX or any ingredients and
processes that might produce Absorbable Halogenated Hydrocarbons. But perhaps
the largest surprise in the KRAV organic textile standards is that they allow
the use of formaldehyde: 20 parts per million (PPM) for cotton sheets, bedding
and baby clothes; 75 PPM for other clothing and outerwear; and 100 PPM for
interior decoration textiles such as drapes, curtains and furniture upholstery.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace regulations
restrict workplace exposures to not exceed 0.75 PPM as an eight hour time
weighted average and not to exceed 2 PPM short term exposure limit for 15
minutes. High levels of exposure to formaldehyde in the range of 50-100 PPM
have been associated with swelling of the lungs and movement of fluid into
the lungs. According to the Washington State Department of Health, “Exposures to levels greater than 100 PPM
can be fatal.” By contrast, the organic textile standards of other organic
trade associations, including OTA, prohibit the use of formaldehyde in organic
The Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA) was founded
in 2000 to create standards and to promote organic cotton products and garments
in Japan. Because Japan imports all its cotton, JOCA provides the critical
function of certifying organic cotton imported into Japan. JOCA also certifies
that all processing and manufacturing of organic cotton in Japan into textiles
conforms to JOCA organic cotton textile standards. JOCA has created a three-tiered
system for labeling organic cotton textiles: “PURE” for organic cotton textiles
and garments that are undyed and without printing on the fabric; “PURE
dyed/printed” for organic cotton textiles and garments that are dyed
or have printed patterns; “BLEND” for products made of more than
60% organic cotton with less than 40% natural fibers like wool, linen, silk
etc. or conventional cotton. Less than 10% of synthetic fibers are allowed.
Same standards as "PURE dyed/printed" are applied for dyeing and
printing of "BLEND" products.
So far, we have briefly examined the parental role of the International Organization
Of Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) in establishing the basic guidelines regarding
organic textile standards and in accrediting the certification standards of
private, independent organizations to develop organic standards. The last area
to explore is the process for producers and manufacturers to have their products
approved to carry the labels of the organic textile trade organizations. This
is how consumers can gain confidence in the organic quality of garments and
All of the major trade organizations – such as OTA, Soil Association,
INV, Demeter, KRAV and JOCA – that have created organic textile standards
also have established processes, requirements and regulations for certifying
that producers and manufacturers meet those organic standards and qualify to
carry their organic label. Sometimes the group that conducts the certification
process with the producers and manufacturers belongs to the organic trade organization
and sometimes it is an independent organization or company that has been accredited
and licensed to conduct the organic certification.
In the globalized world to textiles, organic certification is conducted at
the location of the producers and manufacturers so it can be almost anywhere
worldwide. Within the last decade a vast global infrastructure has developed
to assist in the certification of organic textiles. Organizations like the
Institute for Marketecology (IMO) based in Switzerland but with offices worldwide
and Skal based in the Netherlands provide organic inspection, certification
and quality assurance services worldwide.
IMO provides certification services on behalf of several
of the organic textile standards including OTA, INV, Demeter and the Soil
Association. IMO is also providing certification services for organic cotton
cultivation for the Organic Cotton Project on behalf of Wal-Marts and Sam’s
Club on organic cotton farms in Turkey, India, China, Pakistan and countries
in Africa. Indications are that Wal-Mart really does intend to become a major
organic clothing retailer. There are whispered rumors that Wal-Mart has purchased
a major share of the organic cotton crop in Turkey.
IMO and KRAV have signed a cooperation agreement for international inspection
and certification that allows IMO certified operators to easily apply for KRAV
certification through IMO.
Skal, based in the Netherlands, is another well known and respected organization
that provides organic certification worldwide. Skal owns the EKO Quality symbol
for organic production certified by Skal.
One last important development in organic textile standards has been the development
of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) that begins the process of harmonizing
all the different and slightly varying organic textile standards. The Global
Organic Textile Standard was developed by the International Working Group on
the Global Textile Standard as part of the International Conference on Organic
Textiles (INTERCOT). The Global Organic Textile Standard is a collaborative
effort between the Organic Trade Association, Soil Association, International
Association Natural Textile Industry (IVN), and Japan Organic Cotton Association
(JOCA). GOTS is intended to allow organic textile manufacturers to export their
organic fabrics and garments using this one certificate that will be accepted
in all the major world markets. Before, manufacturers needed different certificates
to market into different countries.
This was the quick magical tour of the mysteries of organic clothing standards.
The global market is still ruled by a half dozen slightly varying standards
that are generally similar in intent and purpose. Efforts such as the Global
Organic Textile Standard are working to unify the differences in a way that
will provide meaningful protection to the environment, all workers from the
fields to the factories, and to the health and well-being of the consumer.
These are important steps in transforming the garment and textile industry
from one of the most ecologically damaging into a truly sustainable industry
that is life supportive.
When shopping, look for the "certified organic" labels and ask at
the stores for "certified organic" clothing. Ultimately, it is always
the consumer that has the strongest voice. In the next posting, we will explore
the emerging standards for sustainable textiles. There is a fascinating diference
in "flavor" compared with the organic standards.
Cool Green is grateful for the expressed permission of the author to reproduce
this article. All rights belong to Michael Lackman of www.LotusOrganics.com.