When you think of an organic label, you’re probably thinking of food. But as the organic movement continues its explosive growth, many labels are going on textiles these days. Sustainably made textile products, from clothes and mattresses to cotton swabs and tampons, are filling store shelves across the U.S. and around the world. Organic cotton production has been growing by double digits for a lot of the same environmental reasons that have led to the increased popularity of organic food. Fibers like cotton are major agricultural products, requiring fertilizers and pesticides like any other crop. But ultimately the textile industry is a different beast, and the farm is only the start of a very long and unsustainable supply chain leading to the brightly colored, waterproof, wrinkle-free clothes hanging on store racks.
While an organic certification ensures that the fiber was grown without prohibited pesticides or fertilizers, it says nothing about the processing of that fiber into a finished product, which is often deeply environmentally and socially irresponsible. Textiles are frequently treated with some seriously nasty chemicals, like formaldehyde (for reducing wrinkling), PFAS chemicals (waterproofing) and brominated flame retardants. These compounds can pose health risks to both workers and consumers. Since waste products are often discharged untreated, they can also be damaging to the wider environment. Many of these chemicals are virtually unregulated, and the regulations on the books are difficult to enforce in a complex, global industry, involving thousands of possible chemicals used at multiple stages in different countries. Beyond its environmental and health issues, the textile industry is infamous for well-documented exploitative labor practices, like sweatshop and child labor.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification was introduced in 2006 to provide consumers an option to buy clothes made from organic fibers, without harmful chemical treatments, and without exploitative labor. GOTS enforces rigorous and comprehensive standards across the textile supply chain. In its first 10 years, GOTS has seen rapid buy-in; as of 2016 (the last year for which figures are available), there were over 4,600 GOTS-certified producers worldwide. GOTS holds promise for refashioning the global textile industry.
As people become aware of the toll of industrial agriculture on the well-being of farmworkers and the environment, it’s easy to see how that concern expands to production of fibers like wool or cotton. Conventional fiber crops have the same environmental impacts as food crops; if anything, these problems are more severe.
Cotton is quite water-intensive — one kilogram of cotton takes an estimated 9,980 liters of water to produce, compared to just 287 liters for a kilogram of potatoes. Cotton production has already wrought environmental devastation in the Aral Sea in Central Asia; what was once the world’s fourth-largest lake is now a dust bowl due to reckless cotton irrigation. In the U.S., cotton irrigation is stressing water systems in some of the more parched cotton growing regions, such as West Texas, where the Ogallala aquifer is being quickly depleted. Cotton is also a particularly pesticide-intensive crop, though in conventional agriculture GMO cotton expressing the Bt toxin (which has its own controversies) has cut down on insecticide use in recent years. Cotton accounts for more than 10 percent of global pesticide use and more than 20 percent of insecticide use, but it sits on only 2.5 percent of global farmland. Wool production also has a heavy environmental footprint, particularly with regards to climate change; methane produced by sheep is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Organic fiber production can help reduce climate change by not using energetically expensive chemical inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and by fostering healthy soil that sequesters carbon. Healthier, more biodiverse soil also absorbs water better, reducing water use for these intensive crops. On textiles, the organic label certifies that 95 percent of the original fiber input was grown to USDA organic standards, reducing the environmental impact of the fiber production; the “Made with organic” label indicates that at least 70 percent of the fiber was grown organically. But the organic label does not address the processing of fiber into textiles, which can be an equally if not more toxic endeavor.
The more stringent GOTS (and the similar Textile Exchange standard, which is being harmonized with GOTS) adds another layer of protection, ensuring that workers along the supply chain are not exploited and that toxic chemicals are not used in the downstream processing of the fiber. Some in the textile business are worried about the potential for organic textiles to confuse customers into thinking they are buying the most environmentally responsible fiber available.
“Not only do [non-GOTS-certified textiles] have the possibility to confuse consumers, it’s doing that every day,” said Barry Cik, founder of GOTS-certified Naturepedic mattresses. “Consumers don’t know who to believe, what’s really a quality product and what’s a pretend quality product, and that’s the purpose of GOTS.”
“A few years ago my wife sent me into a baby store to buy a crib mattress and a few other things for our first grandchild,” said Cik. “When I walked into the store, it became obvious to me that everything available was made with polyurethane foam, with flame retardant chemicals, vinyl with plasticizer chemicals. There was formaldehyde and pesticides in some of these products.”
Home products like mattresses are often made out of highly flammable polyurethane foam and then treated with brominated flame retardants to reduce fire risk. This widespread practice has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly after a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative report. Industry groups make the argument that these flame retardants save lives, but while rates of fire-related deaths have dropped in recent decades, the link between fire incidence and flame retardants is controversial and based on flimsy science. However, there is evidence that these compounds are damaging to the environment and human health. Brominated flame retardants are slow to break down, so they can be found in household dust and dryer lint, and they can accumulate in food chains, passing onto humans through our diet.
Textile products are treated with a cocktail of chemicals beyond flame retardants, including azo dyes, heavy metals, and PFAS chemicals. These compounds are often dumped untreated back into waterways. For example, recently the sludge from a leather tannery was found to have contaminated drinking water wells in Michigan with PFAS, a class of waterproofing chemicals implicated in thyroid cancer.
The data about the toxicity of the chemicals in this cocktail vary greatly. Cik, who is also a certified environmental engineer, advises a cautious approach to toxic chemical exposure.
“Sometimes, a tiny bit of a toxic chemical can be harmful; sometimes you don’t know if this chemical will interact with another of the 80,000 chemicals in the marketplace,” said Cik, referring to the more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S., most of which have not been tested for their health effects. “It’s way too big of an issue, and there’s only one solution: I don’t know what’s doing what, I don’t know what’s harming kids, so let’s make sure that the product is made with nontoxic materials.” GOTS echoes Cik’s cautious sentiment, maintaining strict rules for chemical inputs (beyond those that have been proven to be toxic) and treatment of water returned to waterways.
The social dimension
GOTS protects vulnerable workers along the textile supply chain by reducing their chemical exposure. On farms, the organic standard protects farmworkers from exposure to synthetic pesticides. In garment factories, workers are exposed to waterproofing chemicals at much higher concentrations than consumers are. In fact, longtime workers at garment factories are more likely to die from myeloid leukemia, due to formaldehyde exposure. GOTS stringent requirements on chemical inputs help keep these workers safe.
Workers in the textile industry face abuse beyond the risk of chemical exposure. Forced child labor is rampant in cotton fields in countries like Uzbekistan. And as the world was reminded by the tragic 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, the manufacturing side of the textile industry is also notorious for exploitative labor conditions. GOTS protects workers directly by mandating the monitoring of wages and working conditions as part of the auditing process.
Today, more than 1.4 million people work in GOTS-certified facilities. Textile companies at the retail level often find long, complex, international supply chains difficult to understand and monitor. By actively recruiting and maintaining certified businesses at all levels of the supply chain, GOTS makes the work of selling responsible products much easier. As Barry Cik of Naturepedic put it, “If I’m buying a GOTS-certified product and getting a transaction certificate, I don’t have to worry about the social issues, because GOTS has already taken care of it.”
In me, on me, around me
As people become more accustomed to purchasing organic products and more aware of the pervasive toxic chemicals in our industrialized environment, they look for new ways to expand their sustainable purchases beyond food. This expanding awareness is encapsulated as the “in me, on me, around me” mentality in sustainability circles, and has been driving the growth in organic textiles as well as sustainably made beauty and cleaning products.
The “around me” part of that mentality can refer to the cleaning products under your sink, but could also be the PFAS chemicals in the water supply or the child labor in cotton fields of Uzbekistan. As more people realize the impact of their dollars, that consciousness naturally expands. GOTS is putting that awareness to work to build a cleaner, less toxic environment and a better life for the millions of people working in textiles worldwide.