Are Organic Fibers Really Toxin Free?
Fashion brands around the world are declaring their commitment to sustainable production and the use of organic materials in their clothing lines. Organic fibers such as cotton and hemp can be a safer and healthier alternative to chemical laden and synthetic materials that place toxins in direct contact with the skin. But not all products labeled “organic” are actually toxin free.
Making the Case for Organic
Synthetic fabrics and materials processed with dyes, resins and bleaching agents can cause allergic reactions, rashes and even breathing problems. Some are flammable or contain carcinogens. Organic clothing made from organic, toxin free fibers and processed without harsh chemicals is saferfor both the wearer and the environment. But finding truly organic clothing can be challenging, thanks to vague definitions of the word “organic” and the allowed use of a variety of chemicals in the processing of organic fibers like cotton and flax.
Going Organic Boosts Brand Success
As the world becomes more aware of the planet-wide effects of consumer choices, “organic” has become a key part of successful marketing strategies of all kinds, from food to fashion. Brands such as the Swedish conglomerate H&M, US-based Gap and UK retail giant Next are using their platforms to inform customers about the value of buying organic and sustainably produced clothing and accessories.
These and other environmentally conscious retailers often point out that their organic clothing, bedding and other products originate from organically farmed fibers and other materials. But in the journey from seed to finished product, there are plenty of opportunities for organically farmed fibers to encounter a variety of potentially toxic chemicals.
Organic Farming Isn’t Always Chemical Free
Organic farming originated in the early 20th century in response to emerging concerns about chemical toxins in food and other everyday products. In the past two decades, the demand for organically grown products has skyrocketed, driven by increased awareness about the effects of synthetics and other chemicals on the body and the world as a whole.
Conventional agricultural systems rely on an extensive array of chemical products (called “inputs”) such as fertilizers, pesticides, growth enhancers and genetically modified organisms, which can create high yields but also pass along a chemical load to end users of food and other products. But organic farming practices are based on ancient agricultural strategies such as rotating crops and using natural fertilizers like earthworms and manure, rather than relying on synthetic inputs throughout the growing cycle.
Organic agriculture for textile fibers and other products is regulated by a number of organizations around the globe such as the International federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, which sets standards farms must meet in order to qualify as “organic.” In general, agricultural concerns can be considered organic if they use only natural and non-synthetic inputs at all stages of cultivation and production.
But “non-synthetic” doesn’t mean non-chemical. More than 20 chemicals and heavy metals are approved by entities such as the US Organic Standards for use in growing and processing organic crops, simply because they aren’t synthetically manufactured.
These approved chemicals include boric acid, hydrogen peroxide, petroleum, vegetable and fish oils, chlorine and minerals such as copper and silica. Some synthetics developed from natural substances are also allowed, such as ethanol, isopropanol, and ammonium carbonate.
Chemicals can enter the organic growth chain at multiple points, starting with soil prepared for planting seeds. As plants such as cotton and flax mature, they can be treated with chemical based fertilizers and pesticides. After harvest, they might also be processed with chemicals to remove leaves and extract fibers. And even if none of these chemical products are used on the farm, organic fibers can face another onslaught of chemical treatments in processing facilities that prepare them for manufacturing into clothes and other household items.
Manufacturing Creates New Risks for Toxins
In the various stages of processing into textiles, organic materials like wool, cotton and flax can be bleached, dyed, or treated with flame retardants. These processes add toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, chlorine and heavy metals including antimony, cadmium, and mercury to clothing of all kinds.
These chemicals can produce reactions ranging from skin irritation to anaphylaxis, and can be especially dangerous in children’s clothing such as pajamas. But because a product originated from organic fibers, manufacturers might still label it “organic,” leaving it up to consumers to do the research on its toxic content.
Now, though, a number of organizations throughout the world are working to help consumers buy organic with the confidence that fabrics and other materials such as thread, fasteners and labels are toxin free.
The Global Organic Textile Standard: Creating Consumer Confidence
To ensure that “organic” clothing and other wearables do in fact meet standards for organic and chemical free processing, groups such as the Global Organic Textile Standard(GOTS) certify qualifying products as meeting established standards for organic production and manufacturing.
The GOTS group includes four organizations from the US, the UK, Germany and Japan. Together, they set the world’s leading standards for processing organic fibers.
To become GOTS certified and wear its label, products must contain a minimum of 70 percent organic fiber and all chemical inputs used in its processing have to conform to GOTS criteria for environmental and toxicological impacts.
Consumer groups and advocates for safety in children’s clothing recommend that buyers look for labels from GOTS and other established watchdog groups dedicated to ensuring that products claiming to be organic do in fact meet standards for toxin free processing. But many products don’t carry that designation, so consumers can check labels for content such as “100 percent organic cotton” or other types of fibers. In some cases, a company’s website can provide information about its commitment to organic processing and content.
Organic clothing is part of a larger move toward sustainable manufacturing that’s both healthier and kinder to the environment. With the help of environmental organizations and consumer protection groups such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, consumers can make clothing choices that protect both their health and the environment.