The clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil (supposedly). A commonly quoted “fact” that was picked up by the media but actually with no real source. (yes, it’s fake news!) But that doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t care.
Whilst we as home seamstresses may not subscribe to fast fashion, we often buy fabrics and make a lot of things. Organic is one of those things that has become more mainstream in recent years, similar to the lightbulbs, electric cars etc. Here are a few FAQs on organic fabrics.
For mythbusting and why organic cotton is not an environmental panacea, read this post.
1. Do organic fabrics have fabulous properties that make it feel or look nicer?
No. You pay more for organic because is supposedly kinder for 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 manufacturers 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 I have found many different certifications. GOTS is the most oft quoted and cites 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. This is just a taster. For mythbusting on organics, read here.
What a fantastic post you’ve put together. Thank you so much for this, it really is thought provoking indeed Kate! I think you’ve provided such balanced information too, I hope more people read this and can get a better understanding of the organic fabric situ. I would like to refer to this post in the future if that’s OK? I’m not fabric buying at all at the moment and am trying to use up what I have but when I’m back in the game for fabric purchases I would like to reference it.
Hi Josie, thank you so much for reading and the comment! I try not to be too doom and gloom about it as I personally don’t find it particularly helpful. You are more than welcome to refer, repost, share, etc. the more people talk about and are interested the better! I realise it will never be a mainstream sewing blog documenting my makes (nor is it intended to be) but to have a few readers like yourself is already great. Have a lovely weekend and very happy to hear you are in the “not buying” camp for the moment. xx
Another brilliant post! You are totally right about saying that we buy too much fabric and buy too much stuff. I always dread when it is “stash day” in one of the many IG photo challenges, it breaks my heart to see so many unused, unloved fabric lying around craft rooms around the world.
In comparison to others I don’t think I own too much fabric, but still the size of my stash makes me feel uncomfortable and I’ve been thinking how to downsize it without being wasteful. I recently found out about the Pyjama Fairies (they make pjs for children in hospital) and I thought it’d be a nice way to use the fabric I already own and don’t seem to find projects for them.
Again, I think over consumption is the common ground to this problem too, that fear of missing out on an offer, a fabric… I love owing little, it brings me peace of mind.
Ah yes, the dreaded “stash pride” prompt. Glad I am not the only one. I have seen people say they feel guilty about how much stuff they have, and at the other extreme people displaying huge shelves of stuff and being really proud of it. That sounds so cool about Pyjama Fairies! I have recently joined a quilting group which makes charity quilts. I had intended to make the blocks using my cotton scraps but because each month one person sets the pattern including colours etc. it turns out that I have had to buy fabric in a hurry to meet their timeframes because I don’t always have fabric that meets their rules. Best intentions did not quite work out on that one. Next time – organic quilting cotton!