What You Really Get When You Buy Organic Clothing and Linens

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You’re already eating organic foods because they’re healthier for your body and the environment, right? Me too. And it’s probably safe to say that (like me) you favor organic personal care products because you want to nurture your hair and skin with healthy ingredients – not chemicals. Good call.

But how often do you think about the clothing that sits against your body all day, the towels we rub against our skin after a hot shower (when our pores are open and most receptive), and the bedsheets you lay on all night? I was years into my health journey before it even dawned on me to consider these things.

The trigger, in case you’re curious, was a package of t-shirts that I’d ordered online. I literally thought I was going to pass out just from ripping open the plastic wrapper. I’m not sure if it was the manufacturing chemicals or the formaldehyde that some brands use to prevent their textiles from becoming moldy in the warehouse or during shipping.

Also read: Natural Rugs & Carpets vs. the Usual Chemical Sh*t Storm

Either way, I accidentally took a big ‘ol whiff of the fumes. And not only could I taste the chemicals, but I felt the sting in my eyes as well. It was disgusting and I remember thinking that those t-shirts were just a skin rash waiting to happen.

It also brought me back to my childhood days, going to work with my dad at the textile mill on school holidays. Man, I was connecting the dots fast.

In this article

Natural alternatives

I started to research natural alternatives for my own sake. But in the process, I also learned more about how the manufacturing of these textiles was also hurting the environment. I liked the idea that switching to non-toxic clothing, sheets, and towels also protected the environment… and the animals who live there.

What I ultimately figured out was that buying textiles that were certified organic was the easiest way to ensure my purchases were chemical-free. However, there are also plenty of brands (usually smaller brands) that source and manufacture their textiles to organic standards… but don’t pay the expensive price for certification.

That’s ok in my book. It’s not really the certification that counts, it’s the elimination of toxins from the original fiber through the final product. With that in mind, let’s talk about what you ultimately get when you buy textiles that are grown and manufactured to organic standards.

Certified organic vs. “made with” organic materials

Just for context, when a label says that the product (as a whole) is certified organic — and it has the certification’s logo on the package to prove it — you can rest assured that the finished textile product will contain at least 95% certified organic agricultural materials. Those agricultural materials commonly include cotton, , hemp, eucalyptus, and wool.

The remaining 5% may be synthetic materials or non-organic natural fibers. But even that 5% must be on the list of fibers or materials permitted by that certification standard.

By contrast, clothing and linens that say they are made with organic materials may contain only (and must contain at least) 70% organic materials. In this case, textile makers are NOT permitted to use the organic logo on the package… yet they still need to meet the 70% rule in order to even use the words “made with” organic cotton (or whatever material they’re using). Also, the label may indicate which of the inputs were organic, but it cannot imply that the final product is “organic”.
Organic cotton plant fibers

Where things can get tricky

When a label uses the words “certified organic” or “100% organic” and the certification’s label is present on the logo, then things are pretty clear cut. But when the label says “made with organic cotton” — or even made with !00% certified organic cotton” — things can get a little tricky. I always check the website to see how that organic cotton was processed. Did they add anything unsavory after the fact? I want to know.

For example, the label on a set of towels may indicate the product was “made with 100% certified organic cotton“. But the towel maker could have then dyed that cotton with harmful chemicals or treated it with other chemicals that make the towels feel (artificially) softer, so they are more appealing on store shelves.

Another example would be clothing that is made with organic cotton… but also marketed as resistant to stains, wrinkle, or odors. While these may seem like benefits, your skin may not like the chemicals needed to achieve these characteristics.

Grown to organic standards (certified or not)

The fibers that go into our clothing and linens should be grown responsibly. This means the plants — usually cotton, flax (linen), hemp, or (gaining popularity) eucalyptus — should be grown according to organic farming standards without the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides, or other toxic inputs.

Similarly, the animal should be raised humanely without chemical pesticides. (Sheep are often dipped in chemicals to keep their wool pest-free. Eek!) Livestock should be allowed to graze on healthy pastures and engage in their natural foraging behaviors. And they should also be raised naturally without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

Whether the textile’s fiber comes from a plant or animal, it also needs to be manufactured and dyed responsibly. Again, that means, no harmful chemicals or heavy metals.

Transparency is key

That’s a lot to think about when it’s time to go shopping. Thankfully, brands who thoughtfully manufacture their products with care for the environment and their customers are not afraid to share the whos, whats, and hows of their supply chain. They’ll openly tell you where and how they source their fabrics and proudly share photos and videos of their factories, their workers, and their manufacturing process.

Again, some of these brands pay for organic certification and some do not. Either way, these are the kinds of brands I like to support.

Great example — Organic Basics shares photos and working conditions for each of their factories. I absolutely love that!

Organic Basics FactoryOrganic Basics Factories

All that said, if you are looking for a certification’s stamp of approval, then you’ll want to know about GOTS.

Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)

GOTS CertifiedWhen it comes to certifying clothing and textiles, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) is considered to have the highest standards around.

Most organizations that certify textiles as organic will cover either the raw fiber or the finished product. GOTS covers both. Their organization is considered a leader in the textiles industry for its ongoing efforts to protect the health and safety of consumers, textile workers, and the environment.

What I also love about GOTS is that they don’t only certify that the textiles are both environmentally-friendly and worker-friendly, but they also the quality of the finished products. In other words, in order to qualify for a GOTS certification, your garments, sheets, towels, rugs, or other textiles must pass certain quality tests to ensure they last a long time.

So while you may pay a premium for GOTS certified textiles up front, you save on the cost of replacing them over time. This is ultimately better for the environment too, right? The less we need to buy, the fewer resources are needed. Brilliant.

If you’re curious to dig a little deeper into the details of GOTS standards, read on. As I mentioned above, they’re spread across three main buckets:

  1. The fibers & textiles
  2. The manufacturing of those fibers & textiles
  3. The quality and social requirements

Safer fibers & textile standards

Like other organic standards, GOTS requires that traditional organic farming methods (outlined by the USDA) are followed with regards to growing and producing the natural plant and animal fibers that will ultimately be used to create a textile. For example:

Fibers are from organic farms that DO:

  • Use cover crops and animal manure to add nutrients to the soil.
  • Manage weeds, fungus, disease, and insects through crop rotation and other biological (natural) controls.
  • Allow livestock to graze on healthy pastures and accommodate natural foraging behaviors.
  • Feed livestock 100% organic grass or grain when they are not grazing outdoors.
  • Raise livestock naturally without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

Fibers are from organic farms that DO NOT:

  • Use genetically modified organisms (GMO), synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge.
  • Irradiate their agricultural products.
  • Employ synthetic pesticides, except those on the USDA’s approved list.

In order for the finished textile product to be certified organic, it must contain at least 95% certified organic agricultural materials. This is the same for most other organic certifications. And like the others, GOTS allows the remaining 5% to be synthetic materials or natural (but not certified organic) fibers.

If the label says it is made with organic materials, then it can be considered under the GOTS certification, so long as the textile has at least 70% certified organic agricultural materials. The remainder may contain at least 20% natural (but not certified organic) fibers and at most 10% synthetic fibers. (Socks, leggings, and sportswear are an exception and may contain only 5% natural fibers and up to 25% synthetic.)

Safer manufacturing standards

With regards to manufacturing the textiles, GOTS prohibits the use of heavy metals, formaldehyde, chlorine bleach, and other toxic dyes. It also prohibits the sandblasting of denim, which can damage the worker’s lungs.

Organic Sweatshop Free Kids Clothing & GearManufacturers are also prohibited from using phthalates and vinyl (PVC) in packaging and when printing on textiles. And accessories such as snaps and buckles may not be made from nickel, chrome, or PVC. In addition, all polyester must be post-consumer recycled.

Manufacturers must also have processes in place to minimize waste and energy. And they must track their use and safe disposal of chemicals, water, and environmental sludge.

Strong quality & social requirements

  • The GOTS quality requirements consider the shrinkage, rubbing, irritation, perspiration, and colorfastness of the finished product.
  • Their social criteria prohibit forced labor, child labor, excessive working hours, harsh or inhumane treatment and discrimination.
  • It also requires safe and healthy working conditions and a fair living wage for workers.

Pretty great, huh?

Good to know

GOTS and other organic certifications can be cost-prohibitive for small designers, so just because you don’t see a certified organic or GOTS seal does not mean the higher standards have not been met.

Check the label for words like “low-impact manufacturing”, “low-impact dyes”“no chemical finishes or dyes”, “plant-based dyes” and other indications that healthier alternatives were used in place of chemicals and petroleum-based materials.

When you buy from independent shops and designers you often have the opportunity to ask questions directly about the fabrics, dyes, and finishes — before the fibers are harvested and after they are manufactured.

You can also check the designer’s website to make sure their materials and practices meet your personal standards.

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