The clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil.
Whilst we as home seamstresses may not subscribe to fast fashion, we often buy fabrics and make a lot of things. I do believe a little step change in trying to buy organic and eco-friendly fabrics where feasible is worthwhile. Similarly to other things we use and consume, the more we switch to eco options the more mainstream it will become (lightbulbs and electric cars are coming to mind). Here are a few FAQs on organic fabrics.
1. Do organic fabrics have fabulous properties that make it feel or look nicer?
No. You pay more for organic because is kinder to the environment, kinder to you and kinder to the people that are involved in production. It does not mean it is processed to be extra soft or extra anything for that matter. I think there must be some marketing misconception around this. Today my hairdresser told me a story about how his friend waxed lyrical about an organic cotton clothing range. He subsequently went into the store and was disappointed that it seemed no more luxurious compared to the regular range.
2. What does organic fabric actually involve and why are we always talking about cotton?
Organic only applies to natural fibres (e.g. cotton, wool, linen, silk). Synthetics (e.g. polyester) are man made and chemically produced. Being organic covers the entire fabric production process from growing crops / raising animals, to processing and manufacturing. If fibres are plant based, such as cotton, the general requirement is no synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. In the case of animal based fibres, the animals feed on organic land, there is no animal cruelty, and no routine use of antibiotics and pesticides.
Cotton is the most commonly produced natural fibre. In 2013, almost 80% of the 33 million tons of natural fibres grown was cotton whilst wool is (3.5%) (source: Fashion United). So it makes sense that if you are going to see organic fabric, it is probably going to be cotton.
Organic cotton represents only 1% of the total cotton production in the world.
3. There does not seem to be a lot of organic fabric available, or it is kids prints. Why is this?
My theory on availability is that we are more concerned with what kids eat and wear than we are ourselves. As a result we are willing to spend more on it. This is based on my RTW and fabric shopping experiences where there seems to be a lot more organic clothing marketed at babies and kids than adults.
For the adults, I think the lack of demand means that what is available being often prohibitively expensive, difficult to find, or just not that nice. I once ordered a swatch book full of organic cotton, jerseys, linen and print and then bought absolutely nothing (and I love fabric shopping…)
4. How much better is organic vs non organic?
This is a matter of opinion on a complex issue. The value that you place on the environmental and social cost is likely your starting point. On the people side, if you make your own clothing you take out the plight of the garment worker. However there are still people involved in growing the fibres and making the fabric. I would do a great injustice to try and cover all the issues here so I will limit myself to headlining some of things that concern me:
- 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides globally are used for cotton farming (source: WWF).
- It takes around 2500 bathtubs of water to produce cotton for 1 t shirt and 1 pair of jeans (derived from WWF). There are other fabrics such as linen which use less.
- The chemicals to dye, wash, print and finish fabrics results in a lot of polluted wastewater. Many manufacturing have lax controls over wastewater and it ends up polluting rivers (source: Greenpeace).
- There are many examples of poor workers rights; poor conditions; child labour; and unsafe working conditions. In Uzbekistan, the state forces teachers, public servants and children to pick cotton in order to meet quotas (source: True Cost documentary and ILRF).
- Chemicals in fabric manufacture are hazardous to people. Greenpeace research into a sample of kids clothing detected chemicals that are harmful to health. Whilst I don’t understand the technical detail, it can’t be good for the chemicals found to be above allowable manufacturing limits or what an eco-standard would require.
Organic comes with its own problems. Counter arguments are that GM cotton grows more efficiently and may use less water.
Ultimately the solution is probably just to consume less and to look for eco friendlier alternatives when possible.
5. If I want organic what should I look for?
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the organic gold standard.
The small print can be confusing. Labels that I have seen include “organic cotton” vs “made with organic cotton” vs “rich in organic cotton”. In the course of my reading for this post I have found many different certifications but GOTS seems to be the most comprehensive standard. It also seems reliable with checks and inspections for farmers and manufacturers and traders to keep their accreditation.
If you look at an organic fabric listing online there is often a reference to it being GOTS certified. Here is a small summary of what this means:
|Fibre production||“Organic” = minimum 95% organic fibres
“Made with organic” = minimum 70% organic fibres.
|Social criteria||No forced labour or inhumane conditions, no child labour, safe working conditions, living wages.|
|Environmental criteria||No chemicals harmful to people or the environment. Use of specific chemicals and substances is not permitted. Any bleaching has to be oxygen based not chlorine. There are rules around environmental policy and processing waste and packaging.|
Are you still with me after all that? There is lots more to say on organic fabrics, certifications and eco-friendlier textiles. Let me know if its been interesting or whether I blab on too much, feedback is welcome! If you like what you have read so far tell me what you’d like to read know about next and I’ll do my best!