Beyond natural fibers

11 07 2012

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle. The amount of plastic used to make the bottles is so enormous that estimates of total amount of plastic used is staggering. Earth911.com says that over 2,456 million pounds of PET was available for recycling in the United States in 2009. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bottles.
Those bottles exist – they’re not going away, except perhaps to the landfill. So shouldn’t we be able to use them somehow?
We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here, and here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics. All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.
So the reality is that polyester bottles exist, and using them any way we can before sending them to the landfill will prevent the use of more crude oil, which we’re trying to wean ourselves from, right? Recycling some of them into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.
Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise, recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers. So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.
Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips, sometimes called flakes. These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester, and and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets – we have no way to verify that. Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from. So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled. Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester. Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green. So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.
Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester. But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.
What does that mean? It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things. In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.
It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true? The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden. And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case? There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions. And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow. This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch. There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives. If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post-consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns, such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important. There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.

But now there is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues. The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system: Gold standard – products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;Bronze standard – products have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.

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Certifications – what to look for in textiles

13 10 2009

Apparently Good Housekeeping now has a green seal of approval.  UL laboratories, the safety test lab, also has it’s own green seal of approval.  In fact, according to the new 2009 Conscious Consumer Report from BBMG, there are now over 400 different certifications  related to “green” and environmental attributes of products and services.  So many that such marks risk losing their effectiveness.    Steven Colbert  said that they now had a “Green Colbert Report”  – they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon.

And like all comedy, it only hurts when we laugh.  Since we’re all about textiles, let’s focus here.   Do you even know what certifications pertain to textiles?

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.  cotton bollI 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 and your new sheets – what do you think has to have happened to that crude to make it acceptable for your bedroom?

So the certifications which are often used for fabrics have only to do with the FIBER, and not with the processing.  The processing is environmentally damaging and results in fabric that contains many chemicals that seriously jeopardize our health.  And often a product is advertised as being an “organic fabric” when 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).

Besides the proliferation of certifications, further muddying of the waters happens because some of the certification agencies which can certify fabric ALSO certify fiber.  In other words, each end product can be certified.  So if we deconstruct a piece of fabric, we can 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 and (5) final product (i.e., blouse, tablecloth, etc.).  Makes you dizzy doesn’t it?

It’s quite common to find  “organic cotton” fabrics  in the market – in other words, fabrics made of organic fibers.  Or at least,  the claim is that the fibers are organic.   Unless they are certified organic fibers, the claim is meaningless:    there are no standards for calling a natural fiber “organic” since by definition  they are organic – because the definition of “organic” is  “of, relating to, or derived from living organisms.”  There is a big difference between a fabric or product which claims to be “organic” and one that claims to be “certified organic”.  So it is important to look for the certification and ask who certified the fibers (if they don’t display that information).  Believe me, if a company has gone to the trouble and expense of certifying their fibers, they will definitely have the information of who did the certification!

Common certification agencies for fibers include:

  • United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Control Union (Skal):  Control Union is a global one-stop-shop for a range of certification programs, including organic fibers.  It certifies to the standards of
    • AB logo
    • Bio Suisse
    • Canada Organic Regime
    • EU organic
    • Japanese Agricultural Standards
    • Naturland inspections
    • NPOP
    • Polish EU organic
    • USDS/NOP
  • 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. Its world-wide activities are accredited by the Swiss Accreditation Service (SAS) according to EN 45011 (ISO 65), which is the international standard for certification. IMO offers certification for organic production and handling according to the European Regulation (EU) Nr. 2092/91.

The certifications  above verify that the fibers have been grown and harvested to organic standards set forth by the various standards.  But they do not deal in any way with the processing of the fibers into fabric.

There exist several third party certifications which we think every conscious consumer of fabric should be aware.  We  should all know what the certification does – and doesn’t – cover:  Oeko-Tex, GOTS, C2C, GreenGuard, Global  Recycle Standard and SMART.

Before giving a summary of the main points of each of the certifications which deal with fiber processing (i.e., weaving), it’s important to note that these certifications are all in business – it costs money to achieve the certification –  sometimes it costs a LOT of money.    Like organic designations in food, some farmers, for example, grow hemp sustainably (because they can).  But  because there isn’t a robust market yet for hemp they don’t want to spend the money for the certification to show it as organic.  Cradle to Cradle and GreenGuard can cost up to $30,000 per product for certification, so when you look on the web sites for these certifications,  you see only large, well established companies who can afford to pay the certification costs.  In addition to these certifications, there are many new “green guides” on the internet which purport to list green products.  A basic listing may be free, but any additional bells and whistles costs money.  So prominently featured green products may be specially featured because the manufacturer has paid for the spotlight.

List of certifications:

GREENGUARD_logo_op_722x464GreenGuard (www.greenguard.org). GreenGuard is not designed specifically for fabrics, but it is often advertised that a fabric is GreenGuard certified. GreenGuard has developed proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines based on government and industrial bodies.  Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves GreenGuard certified.  It was launched in 2000 by Atlanta-based for profit Air Quality Sciences (AQS), which is now a separate not for profit organization.

GreenGuard tests for the emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals, chemicals which are a gas at room temperature.   And that is all GreenGuard does – it does not look at the production of the fabric, or any social justice issues nor does it look at carbon footprint.

And GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:

  • It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.)
  • It does not measure PVC, which is a polymer and therefore not volatile
  • It does not measure phthalates (except in the Children and Schools certification); phthalates are semi volatile, and don’t begin to evaporate until approximately 7 days after exposure to the air.

oko-tex_logo_filament_acetateOeko Tex (www.oeko-tex.com):  founded to provide an objective and reliable product label for consumers and a uniform safety standard for the assessment of harmful substances in fabrics.  Its aim is to ensure products are free of harmful substances.

The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 excludes harmful substances or limits their use. The following parameters form part of the Oeko-Tex list of criteria:

Specifically banned

  • AZO dyes*
  • Carcinogenic and allergy-inducing dyes
  • Formaldehyde*
  • Pesticides
  • Chlorinated phenols
  • Chloro-organic benzenes and toluenes
  • Extractable heavy metals
  • Phthalates* in baby articles
  • Organotin compounds (TBT and DBT
  • Emissions of volatile components

Biologically active products and flame-retardant products are regulated separately.  Oeko Tex is a registered trademark.  Make sure that the test number is quoted and the test institute is named as shown on the logo above.

This certification does not look at the processing or manufacturing (whether wastewater is treated, for example, or renewable energy is used to power the mill) – it is solely concerned with the final product.  There are also no social requirements.

c2c_logoCradle to Cradle (www.c2ccertified.com) : primarily it certifies that the product uses environmentally safe and healthy materials – however the list of what is considered safe is proprietary so we have to take their word for it.  In other words: they’re not transparent. C2C certifies just the product, without looking at how it is installed or used.   It has an energy, water and social responsibility component.

Cradle to Cradle’s strength is in material chemistry.  All ingredients in a product are identified down to 100 parts per million (ppm) and assessed according to 19 human and environmental health criteria:

C2C Human and Environmental Health Criteria
Human Health: Environmental Health
Carcinogenicity Fish Toxicity
Endocrine Disruption Algae Toxicity
Mutagenicity Daphnia Toxicity
Reproductive Toxicity Persistence/ Biodegradation
Teratogenicity Bioaccumulation
Acute Toxicity Ozone Depletion/ Climatic Relevance
Chronic Toxicity Material Class Criteria
Irritation Content of Organohalogens
Sensitization Content of Heavy Metals

All ingredients are rated: green, yellow, red (which has been ascertained to be toxic) or grey (incomplete data, handled like a red).   To achieve Gold and Platinum levels, a product cannot contain any ingredients classified as RED – unless there are no existing substitutes.  MBDC developed this database and it is not available to outsiders.

All ingredients are classified as either a technical or biological nutrient: published C2C literature doesn’t define “recyclable” or “compostable” but MBDC uses European Union guidelines for biodegradability, and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines for recyclability.  FTC guidelines require an established recycling pathway.

For the energy component, it  focuses on the manufacturer’s use of renewable energy in production.  Manufacturers need to use renewable energy for the product’s manufacture to achieve Gold certification, and for the energy used in the product’s entire supply chain to achieve Platinum.  Renewable energy may be purchased on site or purchased thru energy credits.

Certification requires that companies work to preserve the quality and supply of water resources; implementation of these guidelines is required for Platinum.

Manufacturers must adopt corporate ethics and fair labor statements

However,  it’s easy to confuse the ideals and philosophy of the founders with the actual requirements for certification.  For example, a C2C Silver doesn’t guarantee that a product is free of all red ingredients; the only “knockout” chemical at Silver is PVC.  There is no report card for consumers that details what a certified product does or does not include.

In addition,  nutrients may not be returned to technical or biological cycles as described:  the minimum requirement for certification is that a product be 67% recyclable or biodegradeable.   But even a 100% recyclable product may not be able to return to either the technical or biological nutrient cycle.

MBDC certifies just the product, without looking at how it is installed or used.  HYCRETE (an additive to make concrete waterproof) is an example of how misleading this can be – when used as intended, HYCRETE is not biodegradeable and cannot be recycled by any established process.  Yet the product can degrade –  if you accidentally spill a five gallon bucket into a local stream, it’s going to degrade and isn’t going to do any harm.  Yet if used as intended it can neither biodegrade nor be recycled.

C2C criteria does not  refer to manufacturing byproducts or the waste and energy use associated with resource extraction (such as is the case with polyester).  Also the energy and water use standards focus on manufacturing, leaving out the energy and water consumption that results from use of the product.

EXAMPLE: Kynar (coating on Formawall panels): uses fluoropolymer in mfring process which releases PFOA (bioaccumulative and likely carcinogen).  But the PFOA slips thru the C2C assessment since it’s not a  product ingredient.

Finally, some say that C2C is not true third party certification,  but rather a second party program  since MBDCs primary business is consulting with manufacturers,

IN SUMMARY: C2C is distinguished by inspiring ecological thinking,  affiliation with respected thought leaders and idealism.  But it is complicated by a  lack of transparency and gaps in underlying criteria; lack of boundaries between the C2C standards developing body, C2C certification body and the MBDC consulting body.

They’re revising it now, but historically they have not looked at carbon footprint.

For more on C2C, see the article “Cradle to Cradle Certification: A Peek Inside MBDC’s Black Box”, which appeared in Environmental Building News, February 2007

GOTS Logo middleThe Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) ( http://www.global-standard.com;  see also: www.organic-textile-services.com) is a collaborative effort between the United States Organic Trade Association, Soil Association, International Association Natural Textile Industry (IVN) and Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA) to codify textile standards so consumers and manufacturers have one certification – an important step toward harmonization and transparency in textile labels. Since work began on codifying the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) in 2002, it has evolved into the leading set of criteria in the field of organic textile processing.

GOTS aims to define a universal standard for organic fibers—from harvesting the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, to labeling—in order to provide credible assurance to consumers. Standards apply to fiber products, yarns, fabrics and clothes and cover the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fiber products,   GOTS provides a continuous quality control and certification system from field to shelf.  There are also social responsibility components (i.e., fair wages, no forced or bonded labor, etc.)  All parameters are listed and accessible. The GOTS parameters for materials include prohibitions or restrictions on:

  • Aromatic solvents
  • Chloro Phenols (TCP, PCP)
  • Complexing agents (APEO)
  • Formaldehyde and short chain aldehydes
  • Fungicides and biocides
  • Halogenated solvents
  • Heavy metals
  • Ammonia treatment

There are detailed social criteria:  no forced or bonded labor; workers are not required to lodge “deposits” or identity papers with employer; no child labor; workers are free to leave after reasonable notice; working conditions are safe and hygenic.

Wastewater treatment includes measurement  and monitoring sediment quantities, waste water temperature and waste water pH. Wastewater from wet-processing sites (except greasy wool scouring sites and flax retting sites) must, when discharged to surface waters after treatment, have a COD content of less than 25 g/kg of textile output expressed as an annual average.   If the effluent is treated on site and discharged directly to surface waters, it must also have an pH between 6 and 9 (unless the pH of the receiving water is outside this range) and a temperature of less than 40C° (unless the temperature of the receiving water is above this value). The COD/BOD ratio must be ≤ 5. The copper content must not exceed 0,5 mg/l.

The GOTS certification applies to only natural fibers, it cannot be applied to polyester or other synthetic fibers.

smart_logo_2SMaRT Sustainable Products Standard (www.sustainableproducts.com):  based on transparency, using consensus based metrics and life-cycle analysis. They also have in place rules which prevent industry trade association dominance so they can move substantially beyond the status quo.  Renewable energy and conventional energy reduction are specified.

Environmental, social and economic performance criteria are defined and quantified In areas such as:

  • Acid Rain
  • Smog
  • Climate change
  • Habitat alteration
  • Ozone depletion
  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Criteria and indoor air pollutants
  • Water pollutants water intake
  • Solid and hazardous waste

The Sustainable Textile Standard incorporates procedures and protocols established in the following sustainability standards, thereby eliminating both redundancies and potential inconsistencies:

SMART has a certification specifically for textiles called the Smart Sustainable Textile Standard.  For textiles it requires 1300 chemicals be tracked and addressed; it is also transparent (i.e., nothing is proprietary or hidden in their requirements or in decision making).  Confers multiple achievement levels.

Global recyc std

The Global Recycle Standard (www.certification.controlunion.com):   This  brand new standard was developed to help verify claims regarding recycled products.  The Gold level requires products to contain 95 – 100% recycled material; Silver requires 70 – 95% and Bronze contains a minimum of 30%.  The definition of “recycled” under this standard is based on criteria already laid down by Scientific Certification Systems.  In addition,  the standard contains environmental processing criteria and strick raw material specification (water treatment and chemical use is based on GOTS and Oeko-Tex 100)  and social responsibility is incorporated – which ensures workers health and safety and upholds workers  rights  in accordance with International Labor Organisation (ILO) criteria.