Organic designation carries a lot of significance. It promises virtues that are tangible and desirable but generally invisible. Labelling claims range from legitimate to unregulated, creating a consumer landscape filled with a mix of reality, good intentions and greenwashing.
Certifications like GOTS and Oeko-Tex apply to textiles. They are helpful for many reasons. Their guidelines are vast and continue to evolve. Consumers are responsible for knowing what they mean, including, for instance, that products can be certified which are not 100% organic, or even 100% natural fibres.
To further complicate matters, some textiles also use food-oriented certification logos like USDA or OSA.
It’s also important to know that nothing prevents garment manufacturers from using generic logos like these, which can mean anything from “legitimately organic” to “buyer beware”.
“The organic cotton difference” post also shows some of the ways organic cotton differs from ‘conventional”. Because of various information campaigns, consumer interest, and adverse health effects, awareness of things like formaldehyde being routinely coated onto non-organic fabric is increasing.
It is rather incredible but hardly unbelievable to see labels like this:
It’s not just the wrinkle-free fabrics that are saturated with toxins designed to never wash out. A 2015 Swedish study found that even organic cottons can contain problematic dyes and finishes, practices that pretty much negate the whole purpose of organic. This is not surprising, as many organic clothes are dyed, printed, and made in unregulated facilities that also produce non-organic goods.
In theory, “organic” is supposed to indicate less toxic processes from seed to fabric, and then, from fabric to finished garment.
The two main advantages of organics are the same for both food and textiles: environmental impacts of production (including the health and well-being of workers), and health benefits for consumers who use the products. The Textile Exchange’s 2014 “Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton Fibre” shows substantial differences in carbon footprint and water use in organic production.
The health benefits of organic diet and farming were the focus of a 2017 Harvard School of Public Health report. Similar principles apply to textiles and clothing. While most textile research and initiatives focus on environmental concerns, like Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads campaign, others, like the Stockholm study, are about human health problems directly caused by toxins in clothes.
Given the large number of substances and variables involved, it’s practically impossible to quantify the total health effects of clothing. The most measurable are different kinds of contact allergy reactions to textiles, found mostly in occupational statistics and journal articles like this one from 2015.
Anecdotally, textile dermatitis is on the rise, and often misdiagnosed or dismissed. My own dye allergy was incorrectly assessed at first, and eventually diagnosed as one of the worst ever seen by a dermatologist who also works at a prominent occupational health clinic. One upside of this debilitating condition was having the ability to make my own clothes, which I combined with a longtime interest in organic fibres and environmental impacts of textile production to make the Canary brand.