If you agree with me that a third party certification is a way to give us the most unbiased, substantive information about the environmental performance of a fabric, let’s look at third party certifications which are on the market and which test finished textiles. It’s important to know what each certification is telling us, both to keep our frustration levels manageable and to be able to extract useful, trustworthy information. But before we get to individual certifications, there are several issues that are unique to fabrics, which we should mention first.
The first issue has to do with the fact that people often think about what the fabric is made of and totally forget the long and complex process that has to happen to turn the raw material into a soft, smooth finished fabric – I mean, really, do you actually think that the cotton boll which you see in the picture is transformed into your blouse without some kind of serious work? What about oil? Think of crude oil and your new sheets – what do you think has to have happened to that crude to make it acceptable for your bedroom?
The market is absolutely rife with claims about organic cotton – and believe me, I have absolutely nothing against organic cotton. But the focus (by marketers and consumers alike) is that if it’s made of organic cotton, then the product is sustainable. That’s far from the truth. We like to use the analogy of “organic applesauce” – that is, if you take organic apples, then cook them with preservatives, emulsifiers, Red Dye #2, stabilizers and any number of other additives – do you end up with organic applesauce? Just like bread – which is made from wheat which is grown (maybe organically), harvested, ground into flour, mixed with milk, yeast, salt and maybe other things, then baked – fabric undergoes the same type of transformation.
So the certifications which are often found on fabrics may only pertain to the FIBER, and not to the processing. What they mean is the fabric started out with organic fibers – but the processing, like the organic applesauce mentioned above, results in fabric that contains a high proportion, by weight, of synthetic chemicals (such as lead or mercury, formaldehyde, chlorine, or phthalates).
So if only the fiber is certified, you can assume that the chemicals used in processing may contain some of the highly toxic chemicals usually found in solvents, dyestuffs, and finishes. And you can assume that the excess chemicals were released in the effluent and are now circulating in our groundwater. Nor is any mention made of fair wages and safe working conditions. In other words, a fabric made with “organic cotton”, if processed conventionally, is full of chemicals which may be prohibited in a truly organic fabric and which are known to cause all kinds of bad things to human bodies (especially really little bodies), and those harmful chemicals, released in untreated effluent, are now contributing to our own chemical body burden.
Besides the proliferation of certifications, further muddying of the waters happens because the textile supply chain is one of the most complex in all of industry – and some of the certification agencies can certify each step in the process. In other words, each end product can be certified. So if we deconstruct a piece of fabric, it’s possible (indeed necessary to certify the final product) to have certification at each stage: (1) growing and harvesting of organic fibers (2) ginning or other preparation of the fibers to make them suitable for use in spinning; (3) spinning of the fibers into yarns; (4) weaving of the yarns into fabric (5) dyeing and/or finishing and (6) final product (i.e., blouse, tablecloth, etc.). So it’s not unusual to find a GOTS certification logo on a product – because it’s hard to get, and those who have it certainly want to display the logo. But the certification may apply only to the organic fibers – the logo itself is not specific as to what is being certified.
It’s quite common to find “organic cotton” fabrics in the market – in other words, fabrics made of organic fibers. But unless you do some probing, it’s common to find that the “organic” part pertains only to the fiber, while the fabric was made conventionally.
Certification agencies (the companies that verify the fibers/fabric meets the standards set for in the certification) for fibers and textiles include:
United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program (NOP): this logo certifies that the fiber is organic – only the fiber. According to a new Department of Agriculture memorandum dated May 20, 2011, textiles and textile products labeled as “organic” must be third-party certified, and all fibers identified as “organic” contained in the textile product must be certified organic to the NOP regulations. The policy memo confirms that textile products that are produced in accordance with the the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) may be sold as ‘organic’ in the U.S. though they may not refer to NOP certification or carry the USDA organic seal.
- Soil Association Certification Limited (SA Certification) is the UK’s largest organic certification body. It’s also the only certification body linked to a committed charity, promoting organic food and farming. As a member of the Global Standard GmbH, the managing body of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Soil Association now uses the GOTS certification for all new textile products.
- OneCert: OneCert provides organic certification worldwide. Certification and inspection programs include the US National Organic Program (NOP), European Organic Regulations (EU 2092/91), Quebec Organic Standards (CAQ), Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), IFOAM, and Bio Suisse. Services include organic certification, organic inspection, export certificates, transaction certificates, on-line record keeping, answers to certification questions, and presentations of organic topics.
- Peterson Control Union: Control Union is a global one-stop-shop for a range of services in all aspects of the logistics chain of many commodities, including certification programs. It certifies to the standards of The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and the Organic Exchange.
- The Institute for Marketcology (IMO): IMO is one of the first and most renowned international agencies for inspection, certification and quality assurance of eco-friendly products. IMO offers certification for organic production and handling according to the European Regulation (EU) Nr. 2092/91, GOTS, Organic Exchange and for The International Association of Natural Textile Industry, known as IVN. IVN is an alliance of more than 70 businesses involved at some level in the textile production chain, with the goal of countering abuses by having a clearly defined “ecologically oriented and socially accountable business practice.” If a company meets their standards they are awarded a quality seal, which is called Naturtextil IVN certified or certified Best. According to the IVN, GOTS is the minimum standard that distinguishes ecotextiles. Read more here.
The third party certifications which we think every conscious consumer of fabric should be aware includes: Oeko-Tex, GOTS, C2C, GreenGuard, Global Recycle Standard and SMART. Each one has its own set of standards and we’ll take a look at them next week.