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Certified Organic Clothing Labels: What Does It All Mean?

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.

Usda_organic_logo 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 U.S.

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.

Ifoam_logo 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.

Ota_logo 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.

Soilassoc_logo 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.

Ivn_logo 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.

Demeter_logo 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).

Rudolfsteinerphoto 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 and thirst."

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 fibers.

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.

Kravseal 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 textiles.

Jocalogo 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 clothing.

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_logo 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.

Ekologo 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.


Michael Lackman
Only purely beautiful & healthy clothing