‘Organic’ is a pretty over abused & confusing term. To clarify what it means when you see ‘organic kids clothes”, and cotton clothing specifically, here is the quick & dirty low down (with the long and clean bit at the end for those that like details).
(I did a post some time back explaining what certified fairtrade cotton means – have a look at that too to get the full picture of environmental & ethical standards in relation to kids clothing).
To start with lets deal with the generic term ‘organic’ and what that means.
Well as Inigo Montoya says “You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”…….
Essentially, if you see the term ‘organic’ on a garment with no certification mark, it means nothing at all (or conversely just about anything you might imagine). That is because there is no independently audited or agreed standard associated with the generic term ‘organic’, so don’t be hoodwinked into wasting your cash and good intentions on such products unless you are completely satisfied with what you are getting.
So moving on to ‘certified organic’ and what that means for clothing. The clothing production chain is a long one (here is a quick infographic on how it works). For cotton to be certified as organic there is a standard to be met at every point in that chain. Here is the quick overview of what that means…
So if you are satisfied at this point there is no more to see folks and feel free to click away. If you want more detail or have unanswered questions do read on….
Here is how organic certification for cotton works in detail
First, the cotton crop is certified by a group of organizations as meeting an internationally agreed set of standards for organic agriculture (IFOAM), here are all those groups. What does this mean in real terms?
Well here are the principles that certified organic agricultural systems (including cotton) adhere to ….
1) ‘sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible’ . So they avoid the use of fertilizers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives.
2) ‘based on living ecological systems and cycles’ . So all practices work to maintain and enhance the natural balance in the environment and ecosystems (especially in the soil). The way crops are farmed, the habitats that are established and the genetic and crop diversity all seek to support healthy and functioning ecosystems. No mono cultures.
3) ‘build on relationships that ensure fairness’. This means that natural and environmental resources (including animals and water) that are used for production and consumption should be managed in a way that is socially and ecologically just and protect them for future generations.
4) ‘precaution and responsibility are the key concerns in management, development and technology choices’. This means science is important when considering new techniques and technologies, and should be considered alongside practical experience, and traditional and indigenous knowledge. Essentially they take, like drug approval, a precautionary approach – good science that.
Second, the processing of that organic raw cotton into fabric and then garments needs to meet a lot of strict criteria relating to what goes in and what comes out, to allow the end product (the clothing) to be certified as organic.
- Chemical inputs have strict limits, this includes a total ban on heavy metals, endocrine disruptors (which have a pretty nasty impact on kids ), formaldehydes, azo dyes, phthalates along with many other toxic agents.
- Any chemical treatments that are allowed have strict limits placed on them including their biodegradability and toxicity to people and aquatic environments. Keep in mind that not all chemical are ‘toxic chemicals’.
- All organic fibers must be kept separate (and traceable) during all stages of processing.
- During spinning & weaving only naturally derived substances like starch may be used, and machine oils must no contain heavy metals.
- The types of pre-treatment and wet processes allowed are specified (for example chlorination and ammonia treatments are not allowed). All wet processing (so dyeing for example) must be undertaken in a closed system (ie. the water cannot get out once it is in) and all wastewater from wet processing must be treated and meet strict environmental criteria before discharge.
- All fabric dyes and dyes used in prints must meet specified criteria, dyes with heavy metals, azo dyes etc are banned, as are natural dyes derived from threatened species.
- Accessories that are used (buttons, zips, domes etc) must not contain any prohibited agents (e.g no nickle based domes , PVC plastics etc), while thread, embroidery, and detailing materials (like appliques) must meet strict component criteria.
- Any finishing treatments to a garment must meet strict input criteria, generally synthetic finishings (used to make a garment feel smooth or heavier) are banned, and no finishing treatments that can harm the health of workers are allowed (e.g sand blasting of denim).
- Residues in fabrics have strict limits ( Even if produced in compliance with an organic standard textiles may carry traces of residues due to unavoidable contamination).
- Environmental management policy and processes must be in place.
- Packaging must not contain chlorinated plastics, card and paper used in packaging must be recycled from pre or post consumer waste or be certified FSC.
Third, minimum social criteria must be met with regard to the treatment of garment workers (so those milling the fabric and making the clothes).
Note that the social criteria is not as rigorous as certified World Fair Trade Organization or Fairtrade International, for example it is silent on women’s development and equality, and it does not apply to the cotton growing stages (where a lot of the exploitation occurs). It does cover minimum labour rights however.
Fourth. All these standards are independently verified by third party organizations (ie they do not work for the producer), who are invested only in upholding the trustworthiness of the standard.
Here are some Trustworthy organic cotton certifications to look for:
- GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) – do look for or ask for a license number to be sure it is a genuine certification
- SOIL ASSOCIATION mark
Other certifications you see on clothing and are part-way there
- Organic exchange certified that the cotton has been GROWN to organic standards, but has not been processed into fabric to organic standards.
- The OEKO-TEX standard (which you see on a lot of European made clothing) can be a little confusing. This is not an organic standard, but is a European standard testing for ‘harmful substances in fabrics’, it is primarily concerned with potential harm to human health. It is third party audited.
Remember if it ain’t certified then there is a good chance you are paying for something that is all talk. If in doubt about a certification look up the certification mark’s standards and whether these standards are independently audited. Any certification system that is trustworthy and honest will have this information freely available online.
What about garments with some organic component?
To be in the running to be certified as organic by the highest standards described above (basically GOTs), a garment must have a minimum 70% organic component. If it is less than 100% but more than 70% organic then the percentage of organic fabric in the garment needs to be specified on the label.
Seen a mark and you are not sure about what it means? Got a question about organic certification? Let me know and I will see what can find out for you.