What Makes a Material Truly Organic?

There is a lot of “organic” labeling going around these days — and not just for foods. Textiles, too have organic labeling, but what exactly makes a fabric truly organic? Most consumers are familiar with it, but it helps to know the fine print manufacturers may not disclose.

Let’s take the most commonly used organic fabric in the textile industry — cotton. Organic cotton should not use genetically modified seeds and should be grown in pesticide-free soil, with no chemical fertilizers. This makes the process more water-efficient. According to a Textile Exchange report, organic cotton uses 91% less water than GMO cotton and thus produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions across its production process.

This process results in organic cotton being more biodegradable, although recycling textiles is not easy as it sounds.

The USDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 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).

To obtain organic certification, the USDA also requires farmers and handlers to document their processes and get inspected yearly for seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed and pest management, water systems, and maintain proper records.

The agency is encouraging textile manufacturers to turn to the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS IWG), currently the only third-party certification set up to accommodate organic-fabric producers.

The USDA states raw materials must be certified organic under National Organic Program standards, and at least 70 % 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 % of the materials to come from polyester or rayon (up to 25 % for socks, leggings, and sportswear).

But despite all the requirements to produce organic cotton, does that result in a truly organic fabric or “eco-friendly” shirt or skirt? What about the carbon emissions during transportation or packaging along the supply chain? Even USDA’s requirements don’t mandate the use of natural or environmentally-friendly dyes for organic labeling. Dye waste water is a leading cause of water pollution.

The definition of organic fabrics and textiles has never been fully transparent and varies globally. You may try your best, but ultimately there will always be limitations to achieving 100% “organic”.

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